How do you make a dream come true? More specifically, how do make Dream a reality? The first question has vexed humanity since existence. The second has vexed producers ever since they first realized that DC Comics’ “The Sandman” may just be the best comic book ever created.
Originally a supernatural horror title that transformed into a dark fantasy title that necessitated that creation of DC’s Vertigo Mature Readers imprint, “The Sandman” # 1 came out in 1989 with its protagonist, Dream or Morpheus (or any of the literally countless names and forms he takes) created by a team that included artists Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg. But then as now, “The Sandman” has always been identified with its writer, the unparalleled Neil Gaiman.
Gaiman’s Dream is one of the Endless, anthropomorphic personifications of different aspects of existence—and a family, older than gods. When Dream first appeared, he had been based on a young David Bowie, but his look—the pale white skin, jet-black hair and dressed in black as well–has stayed the same. He speaks in a detached monotone and, as the prince of stories and dreams, is lord of the Dreaming, where all humans go when they fall asleep. He also is in charge of creating both dreams—and nightmares.
Trouble begins when Dream—on his way to retrieve an errant nightmare—is captured by humans who imprison him for decades, unknowingly doing immense damage to the real—waking—world and to the Dreaming. But when Dream finally escapes, he finds his realm in ruins, his creations gone and his tools stolen. So he travels to the waking world—and other realms—to fix what has gone wrong, and finds it isn’t as easy as he thought.
For three decades, producers have been trying to adapt what may be an unadaptable series for movies and TV shows (it is, after all, over 75 issues long), with Gaiman serving as both shepherd and protector. But finally, it happened, when streaming giant Netflix announced a 10-episode series in 2019, with Gaiman serving as, essentially, their prince of stories. To adapt the series, Gaiman teamed up with David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg as showrunners.
Gaiman had been hyperventilating about the show leading up to its recent premiere and now we know why. They got it right, for several reasons. The first is how they adapted the show. The Netflix series adapts most of the first two volumes, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House.” Instead of slavishly just copying what was on the page, Gaiman and company essentially dissected it, put back together only what they needed, added some new elements and even changed up some things so that people new to the series would be able to follow immediately what was going on, and those who had read the series would have surprises waiting for them.
There are some noticeable story changes, most notably toning down the heavy horror elements aand setting the show in the present instead of the original 1989. They condensed the plot to fit 10 episodes, so it loses a bit of the sense that Dream was actually captive for a century. Some beloved sequences from the comic have been excised or massively truncated. What’s left is excellent.
The other thing they did is cast well. We get great turns from everyone, but standouts include Patton Oswalt as the wisecracking raven Matthew, Vanesu Samunyai as Rose Walker, Stephen Fry as the chivalrous Gilbert, Jenna Coleman as the magician-for-hire Johanna Constantine (yes, it’s supposed to be John Constantine, but they couldn’t use him due to licensing issues; but she does double duty as the Johanna Constantine who does appear in the book) and, in a turn both menacing and charismatic, Boyd Holbrook as the Corinthian. You won’t look at sunglasses again the same after seeing him. Filipino actress Lourdes Faberes appears in a famous scene from the comics.
But the two controversial castings turn out to be the best risks taken. We all knew Gwendoline Christie was fierce as Brienne of Tarth from HBO’s “Game of Thrones,” but her performance as Lucifer Morningstar (yes, that Lucifer, ruler of Hell) will quiet all the naysayers. The other controversial casting is that of Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Dream’s sister Death, simply because she is not Caucasian as portrayed in the comic book. One does not need to go into a deep dive to explain how the Endless really have no one single form, but this particular complaint is easily negated by Howell-Baptiste’s gentle, matter-of-fact but knowing performance. These two characters appear only in one episode each (the most spectacular and the most “normal,” respectively) but they prove why Gaiman had so much faith in the actors to begin with.
But any “The Sandman” series is only as good as the Sandman himself. The British actor Sturridge has been working in TV and movies since 1996 (incidentally, the year the comic book series ended) but mostly in smaller roles and smaller movies. But he beat out some 200 actors for the part of Morpheus and it is easy to see why. He looks like a much more modernized take on Morpheus yes, but there’s this thing he does with his voice—letterer Todd Klein used a stylized word balloon that is jagged and also reversed—that gives the character just the right detached, almost inhuman quality. Indeed, he starts out that way, but the brilliance of the series—and the show—and how Morpheus, a character who deems himself incapable of change, changes and starts to see humanity in a different light. This is a star-making performance for Sturridge and he might just always be remembered as Morpheus when he moves on to other things.
Gaiman mentioned that the other element that has changed is that the technology has finally caught up with the creativity, something often said of superhero movies, but a particular problem in the past when dealing with a comic book adaptation dealing with dreams. The technology indeed impresses, what with the Dreaming, Hell, Morpheus moving through dreams.
They always say the book is always better and that is still true, because “The Sandman” is a comic book to begin with. But the dreamy Netflix series–with its choice creators, great casting and smart story choices–is the best comic book-to-TV adaptation ever made. They’ve also left so many story threads to be pulled that a return to the Dreaming with subsequent seasons becomes necessary.
Have you ever had a good dream and then, it comes true in real life? One is different from the other, but it doesn’t make you any less thankful for having experienced it.
“The Sandman” is streaming on Netflix.