The TV adaptation is extremely loyal to Neil Gaiman’s original comic books—and that’s as enticing as it is frustrating.
Not long after the 1989 launch of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking comic-book series, came the inevitable question that plagues critically acclaimed smash hits—how best to translate it to the screen? The series’s central family, known as “The Endless,” live in a vividly cinematic world; each member personifies a natural force, including dreams, death, and desire. But Gaiman’s epic story spans eons and an ensemble of dozens. Its hero’s emotions could gently be described as inscrutable. None of that would easily fit into a two-hour movie, and so The Sandman has drifted for decades in search of the visual medium that could do it justice. Has it finally found its footing as a Netflix series?
Netflix has provided fertile ground for expensive-looking genre adaptations that play to devoted fan bases, such as The Witcher, The Umbrella Academy, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. Its usual policy of releasing whole seasons at once means, at least theoretically, that a show is less pressured to explain everything that’s going on in Episode 1. The Sandman’s original narrative is a major slow burn. The first volume carefully assembles the particulars of its protagonist Dream’s universe over the course of a treasure hunt. The Netflix adaptation, created by Gaiman, David S. Goyer, and Allan Heinberg, embraces that pacing, letting things unfold with the care of a monthly comic rather than the punchiness of weekly TV. It makes for some very high highs—and a few languorous lows.
I am an obsessive fan of The Sandman, which I’d fervently argue is one of the peaks of contemporary literature and the best example of just how expansive and experimental the comics genre can be. For years, I would devour any news about potential film adaptations, worrying over how Hollywood might screw things up. Gaiman at one point notoriously denounced one potential draft as “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.” The rise of prestige TV seemed to offer the perfect solution, doing away with the challenge of distilling a complex series into a couple of hours of plot.
That format does pose an additional challenge, though: how to keep audiences hooked? Devotees of The Sandman such as myself will have much to exult in with Netflix’s version, but I wonder what the show will mean to newcomers. The fantasy series is glossy and splashy with an exciting ensemble, which might be enough to entice audiences during these quiet summer months. But its protagonist is not easy to love, especially at first, and his motivations for much of the season are generally unknowable. That ambiguity is by design—so much of The Sandman’s arc is about the audience coming to understand Dream (played by Tom Sturridge) as he also comes to understand himself. But it relies on the viewer’s patience to stick with him through that process.
The first six episodes of The Sandman’s 10-episode season largely pull from the first volume of Gaiman’s comic series. They follow Dream (whose other sobriquets include The Sandman and Morpheus), who rules over the Dreaming—a realm devoted to all of humanity’s bedtime imagination. In the premiere, Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned in the early 20th century by an occultist named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). The story develops over decades as Dream escapes and then works to rebuild his kingdom, seeking lost artifacts and gathering up stray nightmares. During his journeys, he voyages to hell to barter with its ruler, Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), and meets up with his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), the cheerful and levelheaded guardian of all mortality.
If that summary sounds like a lot, know that it only scratches the surface. Dream and Death have five other siblings, and Dream’s own territory is populated with colorful figures, some friendly and others quite malevolent. Sturridge plays Dream as initially aloof and grumpy, his edges softening just a little episode by episode. In the comics, he’s a chalk-white, goth-y string bean with a big tangle of bushy hair inspired by The Cure’s Robert Smith. This 2022 version is a little more male model than rock god, but Sturridge does have gravitas, and he particularly starts to come into focus once he’s with bubblier characters such as Death and the sorcerer-detective Johanna Constantine (played by Jenna Coleman and assuming the role of the books’ John Constantine).
Where the series cannot hope to compare to the comics is in its visuals; although the CGI in The Sandman is lavish and ever present, it can’t render a dreamworld in as impressionistic a style as an illustrated comic can. If the TV show was drawn by hand, perhaps it would leave a more stunning impression. Instead, the green-screen backdrops of fiery plumes and impossibly tall palaces are merely adequate. And while I appreciated the attention to plot detail and the effort to pack every bit of Gaiman’s storytelling into the frame, faithfulness does have its limits. In the fifth episode, Dream faces off with John Dee (David Thewlis), a man driven to cruelty by one of Dream’s lost artifacts. Their showdown is one of the most arresting and horrifying Sandman issues ever published, but I found the TV edition surprisingly grating, hampered perhaps by the attempt to stretch a few dozen pages of comics into an hour of television.
At other times, the steady rhythm afforded by the narrative fidelity is riveting. The sixth episode, “The Sound of Her Wings,” sees Dream hanging out with Death, decompressing and finally looking inward, and it exemplifies how involving the show can be without relying on spectacle. The final four episodes of the season reimagine “The Doll’s House,” Gaiman’s second volume. At that point, both the book and the adaptation benefit from a tighter focus, sticking with the same group of characters through the end rather than bouncing from dimension to dimension with impunity.
I imagine future seasons will have even more storytelling confidence, but a renewal for a show of this scale will likely require some serious viewership. I do think that, considering its flaws, The Sandman will primarily appeal to mega-fans, but if it leans even further into the richness of its characters, it may just draw a wider audience. At its best, the show is strong fantasy entertainment that functions as a great introduction to Gaiman’s writing. But the barrier to entry is high, and the cost of jumping into such an intricate saga might be too much for some.