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’s brought The Sandman to the screen, without ruining the story.
The comic, which he first outlined in 1987, had an original run through DC Comics from 1989 to 1996. Among those who read it, The 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 going on to spawn a Hugo Award-winning prequel, a whole universe of spinoffs so popular some are already turning into their own series, and millions of fans clamouring for an adaptation on TV or film, it never happened.
In an interview with CBC, creator Neil Gaiman said before now, it just wasn’t possible to bring that story to screens. The Sandman follows the somewhat-titular character (most often 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 all living things go to when they sleep, and where everything ever dreamed up becomes real.
That puts virtually all fictional beings — and some real ones important enough to take on mythic status — firmly in Gaiman’s reach. Reading The Sandman is like participating in humanity’s greatest crossover episode: everyone from fellow DC superheroes, to ancient Egyptian gods, to Shakespeare, Lucifer, God, and Cain and Abel aid and abet the Lord of Dreams. Even Loki — the Norse god made famous most recently by his prominent role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe — plays a part in the long plot the The Sandman books lay out.
Gaiman himself spent decades shutting down attempts to bring his creation to the screen; there was just too much there for a traditional movie or TV show. With the genre-hopping between horror and fantasy (while also hitting everything in between), fantastical visuals made by some of the most influential artists in the medium (original Sandman artist Dave McKean even returned from retirement to design the show’s credits) and a brooding, philosophical theme, for thirty years it proved too difficult for any writer to tackle.
And when they tried anyway?
“All that happens is you break your heart trying to figure out how to create a plot that will actually be Sandman,” he said.
It wasn’t until the way we make, and watch, TV series was reinvented, that Gaiman actually considered The Sandman could work outside of a comic book.
“I think it’s that thing where something that was an enormous bug suddenly became a feature,” he said. Even a decade ago, a two-hour movie was seen as the place for big-budget story telling — and TV shows were locked into a rigid 21- or 42-minute frame. Streaming has opened that up.
“The times have changed and, suddenly, the idea that you have a 3,000-page story that could be turned into 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 hours of quality television — it turns into something that’s actually an enormous feature and a wonderful thing.”
The final product, which launched on Netflix today, only scratches the surface of the source material (for fans of the comic, the first season reaches as far as the “Doll’s House” arc in issues #9-16) but still manages to introduce a fair amount of the world and its characters.
That of course includes Dream himself, played by English actor Tom Sturridge, who was presented with another problem central to 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 audiences actually care about?
“I think he is emotional, but I think by necessity he has to withhold that emotion,” Sturridge said.
The show is as much about the supporting characters as it is about Dream — and sometimes, more about them.
Wide cast of characters
Vanesu Samunyai plays Rose Walker, a major player in the “Doll’s House” arc — her first ever credited role. She said she earned the part after years of auditions, and just before she gave up on acting altogether.
Her casting was part of a number of changes from the comic that brought some fans up in arms — and saw Gaiman fighting back.
Having Samunyai, who is Black, play Walker changes the character, who was white in the comics. It also has a ripple effect on various members of her family — also important figures in the story, who are similarly played by Black actors.
That’s not the end of the changes the Sandman team made. Lucifer, an important antagonist early on, was mostly drawn to appear more typically masculine in the comics — though that isn’t the case earlier on in Gaiman’s books.
In the Netflix series, Game of Throne‘s actress Gwendoline Christie takes on the role of Lucifer — something she didn’t see as a problem in the nuanced world of Gaiman’s Sandman.
“There is no gender involved whatsoever, because Lucifer isn’t human,” Christie said. “Lucifer was an angel, so that didn’t bother me at all.”
Updates, anger and a Twitter war
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 has been forced to defend the choice after some fans posted angry comments over her casting.
For her part, Baptiste said she’s excited to show a different portrayal of Death, who’s so often depicted as the Grim Reaper in modern media.
“I think people will find great surprise and great comfort in seeing this character who is caring and nurturing and maternal,” she said.
“I give zero f–ks about people who don’t understand/ haven’t read Sandman whining about a non-binary Desire or that Death isn’t white enough,” Gaiman tweeted last year, after the cast list was made public. “Watch the show, make up your minds.”
And finally, the only character Gaiman said the team “intentionally gender-swapped” is Lucienne — known as Lucien in the books.
Like her castmates, actress Vivienne Acheampong didn’t see much of a problem with the change — it’s just another aspect of Gaiman’s take on the superhero genre, that feels considerably more complex than other offerings in the mainstream.
“All of [Gaiman’s] characters are just so rich, and the essence of that character is there,” Acheampong said. “It’s embodied in a different way [than] is on the page or maybe some people have imagined. But the essence of this being… has not changed, that is still there and very much present and what I want to portray.”