It’s taken 35 years, a journey through development hell, a bidding war and more than a few nightmares, but writer Neil Gaiman reckons he’s finally done the impossible. He brought Sandman to the screen without ruining the story.
First outlined in 1987, the comic had an original run in DC Comics from 1989 to 1996. Among those who read it were Sandman has since gained a cult following as one of the most influential — and creative — works of literature to come out of the comics world.
But despite spawning a Hugo Award-winning prequel, a whole universe of spinoffs, some of which are already popular changing to their own seriesand the millions of fans clamoring for a TV or film adaptation never happened.
In an interview with CBC, creator Neil Gaiman previously said that it was simply not possible to bring this story to the screen. Sandman follows the somewhat titular character (most commonly called Dream, but also variously referred to as Morpheus, Lord Shaper, Kai-ckul, and yes, Sandman) as he rules his domain—the land of dreams, where all living things go when they sleep, and where everything that ever dreamed becomes a reality.
This puts virtually every fictional creature within Gaiman’s reach—and some real ones important enough to earn mythic status. Reading Sandman it’s like taking part in humanity’s greatest crossover episode: everyone from DC superheroes to ancient Egyptian gods to Shakespeare, Lucifer, God, and Cain and Abel aiding and abetting the Dream Lord. Even Loki — a Norse god who recently rose to prominence for his prominent role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — plays a part in the long plot. Sandman unfold the books.
Gaiman himself spent decades stalling attempts to bring his creation to the screen; it was too much for a traditional movie or TV show. Genre-hopping between horror and fantasy (while also hitting everything in between), fantastic visuals created by some of the most influential artists in the medium (the original Sandman artist Dave McKean even came out of retirement to design the show’s credits) and brooding, philosophical subject matter that proved too difficult for any writer to handle for thirty years.
And if they even tried?
“All that happens is that you break your heart and you try to figure out how to create a plot that will actually Sandman” he said.
Indeed, Gaiman reflected that the way we create and watch television series has been reinvented The Sandman could work outside of comics.
“I think it’s that thing where something that was a huge bug suddenly became a feature,” he said. As recently as a decade ago, a two-hour film was considered a place for big-budget storytelling — and TV shows were locked into a rigid 21 or 42-minute frame. Streaming opened it up.
“Times have changed, and suddenly the idea that you have a 3,000-page story that could be made into 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 hours of quality television — it turns into something that’s actually a huge feature and a wonderful thing.”
The final product, which launched on Netflix today, only scratches the surface of the source material (for comic fans, the first season goes back to the “Doll’s House” arc in issues #9-16), but it still manages to introduce a lot of the world and its characters.
Of course, this also includes Dream himself, played by the English actor Tom Sturridge, who was faced with another problem that is essential in the story. How do you play a character who isn’t even human, who walks through the comics with complete detachment from living things, as someone who actually matters?
“I think he’s emotional, but I think out of necessity he has to contain those emotions,” Sturridge said.
The show is as much about the supporting characters as it is about Dream — and sometimes more.
A wide cast of characters
Vanessa Samunyai is played by Rose Walker, a major player in “Doll’s House” – her first ever credited role. She said she landed the role after years of auditions and just before giving up acting altogether.
Her casting was part of a series of changes from the comics that got some fans up in arms — and saw Gaiman fight back.
Having Samunyai, who is Black, play Walker changes a character who was white in the comics. It also has a ripple effect on various members of her family – also important characters in the story who are similarly played by black actors.
The changes don’t end there Sandman created team. Lucifer, an important antagonist early on, was mostly drawn to appear more typically male in the comics – even though he hadn’t previously been in Gaiman’s books.
In the Netflix series, game of thronesActress Gwendoline Christie takes on the role of Lucifer – something she didn’t see as a problem in Gaiman’s gentle world. Sandman.
“It’s not about gender in any way, because Lucifer is not human,” Christie said. “Lucifer was an angel so it didn’t bother me at all.
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Elsewhere, the canonically non-binary character Desire – another of Dream’s siblings – is played by non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park. Dream’s sister Death – arguably as or more beloved by fans than her brother – is played by black actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste. As she was originally drawn as a white woman, Gaiman was forced to defend her choice after some fans posted angry comments over her casting.
Baptiste said she is excited to show a different portrayal of Death, who is so often portrayed as the Grim Reaper in modern media.
“I think people will find great surprise and great comfort in seeing this character who is caring, nurturing and motherly,” she said.
“I give zero f–k to people who don’t understand/have not read Sandman whining about non-binary Desire or Death not being white enough,” Gaiman he tweeted last year, after the cast list was released. “Watch the show, decide.
And finally, a single Gaiman character told the team “intentionally gender swapped” is Lucienne – known as Lucien in the books.
Like her co-stars, actress Vivienne Acheampong didn’t see much of a problem with the change — it’s just another facet of Gaiman’s take on the superhero genre, which seems considerably more complex than other mainstream offerings.
“All of [Gaiman’s] the characters are just so rich and the essence of the character is there,” Acheampong said. “He is embodied in a different way [than] it’s on the page or maybe some people imagined it. But the essence of this being… hasn’t changed, it’s still there and very present and what I want to portray.”
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