For decades now, it’s been a generally accepted bit of conventional entertainment wisdom that Neil Gaiman’s landmark series The Sandman was essentially unadaptable. Though various interested parties have been attempting to figure out how to bring some version of this story to the screen since the early 1990s, they all eventually found themselves broken on the rocks of the comic’s epic scope, complex lore, and constantly shifting genres.
Originally published in 1989, the comic series ran for 75 issues, spawned multiple spinoffs, and essentially became a gateway drug to the world of comics and graphic novels for an entire generation of moody Gen-Xers and English majors who loved Gaiman’s mix of classic mythology, familiar literary tropes, and excellent sartorial choices. (Hands up if you too unironically wore an ankh everywhere thanks to Death of the Endless. Sorry not sorry.)
A story that is essentially about telling stories, The Sandman features nods to classical literature, art, and folk tales from around the world. Its cast of characters includes anthropomorphic immortals, monsters, demons, talking animals, real-life historical figures, and literal nightmares, and its narrative encompasses life, death, and everything in between. (Sometimes literally!) It’s full of standalone tales that are often only connected by the thinnest of narrative threads (i.e., the existence of the titular Sandman) and seemingly bizarre interludes whose relevance to the comics’ larger story doesn’t become clear until much (much) later. In short: The Sandman is truly strange and deeply beautiful and there is honestly nothing else out there like it.
This is all to say that I was ready to hate the heck out of Netflix’s lush, extremely expensive-looking new 10-episode adaptation of Gaiman’s seminal work, if only because I’ve spent over half my life waiting for someone to do a live-action version of this story and getting my heart repeatedly broken in the process. And to be clear, Netflix’s The Sandman isn’t perfect. But, goodness, it’s so, so much more than I ever thought I’d get. Fans of the original will inevitably find things to nitpick—and to be fair, there are some fairly significant changes to the source material—but the heart of the comics story is here, with many scenes that look as though they were lifted straight from the pages of specific issues, and an incredible ensemble cast that manages to embrace even the weirdest of twists with open hearts.
In the most basic sense, The Sandman is the story of Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), informally referred to as Dream, the Lord of the Dreaming, and one of seven immortal beings known as the Endless who are essentially personifications of various aspects of human reality. (His siblings are Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction. Try saying that five times fast.) The series begins with Dream’s capture by a mortal occultist named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), who strips him of his symbols of office—a pouch of sand, a powerful magical ruby, and his very disturbing Helmet of Dreams—and holds him prisoner for the better part of a century.
The episodes that follow see the Lord of the Dreaming attempt to rebuild the kingdom which has fallen into disrepair in his absence, try to find his missing totems of power, and reconnect with his family—various members of which have mixed feelings of their own about his return. Along the way, he’ll be forced to wrestle with the way his imprisonment has not only changed the waking and dreaming worlds he left behind, but his view of his own role within them both. But part of the beauty of The Sandman is that Dream’s journey is hardly the only narrative throughline the series is following. Mirroring the episodic nature of the comic itself, the show is a gorgeous genre-hopping exploration of family and mortality, loss and life that incorporates elements of both serialized and anthology-style storytelling from episode to episode.
As it seamlessly shifts between time periods, settings, and genres, the show moves from high fantasy to horror and everything in between. Dream’s story doesn’t always unfold in a straight line (and sometimes he isn’t even the primary character in the episode we’re watching), and it’s apparent that while he may be this show’s titular lead, he is not always its protagonist. Rather, there’s an ever-present sense that Dream is part and parcel of a much larger and interconnected world, full of hidden corners to explore and new stories to seek out.
The Sandman takes us from the world of dreams to contemporary London and even Hell itself, introducing an array of intriguing supporting characters along the way, including Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), a genderswapped version of the famous DC Comics sorcerer; a Burgess descendent named John Dee (David Thewlis) who wants to use Morpheus’s stolen ruby to craft a more honest world; and Lucifer Morningstar herself (a tremendous Gwendolyn Christie, clearly having the time of her life decked out in a pair of towering black wings).
If the scope of all this sounds incredibly daunting, that’s kind of because it is. This is a vast, epic story with dozens of secondary and side characters, some of who may only appear in an episode or two this season (though many of them will undoubtedly show up again should the show return for a second outing). But the lush visuals and thoroughly lived-in feel of this expansive universe help the whole thing seem full of not just magic, but possibility, and Sturridge’s central performance as Dream is the quietly smoldering glue that holds it all together.
It must be said that Dream, essentially an immortal god who has his world rocked when he learns what it means to be truly vulnerable, is not the easiest of roles, especially given how much of the story essentially relies on him basically being weird and unknowable. But Sturridge’s performance easily bridges the removed and the immediate, showing us a Morpheus who is not only capable of real growth but new understanding, as he is forced to —for what feels like the first time in his very long life—both ask for and accept help from those around him, both human and not. Kirby Howell-Baptiste is also a standout as Dream’s sibling Death, whose performance feels so fully embodied and necessary that you’ll forget that she only technically appears in a single episode.
It’s going to be interesting to see how people who haven’t spent half their lives absorbing Sandman lore respond to this Netflix version of the story, which doesn’t necessarily make it easy for folks who push play on episode one with no idea of what the Endless are or why the Dreaming matters. Will this story resonate with people who aren’t already familiar with these characters and their connections, or who don’t gasp audibly when one of the Endless references “the prodigal” out loud? Thankfully, the back half of the season adapts the comic arc “The Doll’s House,” which features a more straightforward type of story in which a human girl named Rose Walker whose search for her missing brother Jed helps ground The Sandman’s expansive mythos in more relatable real-world stakes.
Yet, in the end, Rose’s story becomes something more than it initially appears on the surface, exploring much grander themes and deeper truths than viewers likely expected. The same can be said of The Sandman itself, whose seemingly disparate parts are something greater when taken together as a whole, and will—when we hopefully get a second season—only grow from here. Welcome to the Dreaming, world.
Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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