Between Coraline, Good Omens, Stardust, and countless other titles, Neil Gaiman’s impressive repertoire of books and graphic novels remain prime fodder for page-to-screen works, and Gaiman’s latest work to get the TV treatment – The Sandman – is no exception. With its sprawling CGI, impressive ensemble cast, and haunting score, The Sandman is perhaps Gaiman’s glossiest and most cinematic adaptation yet. Though sometimes lacking the charm and fire of Gaiman’s other shows, The Sandman’s faithful approach to storytelling, combined with the mesmerizing visuals, make for a series that will dazzle new viewers and (at last) satisfy die-hard Sandman fans.
Starring Tom Sturridge, The Sandman follows Dream, a mythological and powerful being known as the Sandman, who rules over the dreamworld all humans go to when they fall asleep. When Dream is captured by humans looking to exploit his power for their gain, he re-emerges from captivity 70 years later on a quest to not only seek revenge on those who held him prisoner, but to rebuild his dreamworld kingdom, which has fallen into ruin in his absence.
What’s immediately apparent about The Sandman is the sheer scope of the series: in taking the adaption to Netflix, Gaiman is able to exercise a creative vision unencumbered by budgetary constraints – a key element in helping bring to life a comic that was notoriously deemed “unfilmable.” With a reported $15 million(!) per episode budget, though, The Sandman has no trouble bringing to life the outlandish mythical worlds of Dream’s endless kingdom – the extended sequences in the dream world boast cinematic visuals and an eerie atmosphere ripped straight of the pages of a vertigo comic.
Though such a mind-bogglingly massive budget is perfect for bringing to life the rainy, film-noir inspired streets of modern-day London or the crumbling, haunted spires of Dream’s now-ruined palace, the tone of the series itself is a surprisingly isolating and inaccessible one.
Like so many of Gaiman’s works, The Sandman is a series that thrives off of combining the mythical and the magical with real-world sensibilities and settings: though Dream does spend a sizable chunk of time in his kingdom, much of the story chronicles his struggles to interact with and understand humans in the waking world. It’s a formula that we’ve seen before, and a signature of Gaiman’s writing.
However, where previously his protagonists boasted the endearing charm of Good Omens’ Aziraphale and Crowley, or the biting wit of American Gods’ Mr. Wednesday, The Sandman (both as a series and character)’s attitude towards humanity seems to be one of indifference and stoic isolation. Though it’s certainly easy to understand why a being imprisoned by humans for 70 years may have some reservations about opening up to them, Dream’s quiet, withdrawn nature makes the series as a whole feel cold and lacking in the vibrancy of so many previous Gaiman projects.
While it may be true to the comic series, such a moody, frigid tone – combined with a protagonist who keeps mostly to himself and isn’t particularly verbose – means that it’s somewhat difficult to connect to, cheer for, or even care all that much about the many human and mythological character that populate his world. Outside of Dream, virtually everyone he comes into contact with is either an enemy or an unwilling ally – leaving very few characters to empathize with or even root for. Though Jenna Coleman’s Johanna Constantine is undoubtedly one of the stronger personalities and impressive performances, both her character’s signature sense of humor and tragic backstory live in the shadow of Matt Ryan’s turn as Constantine in the short-lived NBC series.
Other supporting players include Gwendoline Christie’s statuesque and ever-intimidating Lucifer, Vivienne Acheampong’s loyal second-in-command Lucienne, and Boyd Holbrook’s troublemaking renegade Corinithian – all of whom are anthropomorphic representations of classic mythological characters or ideas. Despite some grade-A talent, though, all three characters are – in keeping with the show’s tone – frustratingly difficult to connect with beyond their narrative role and admittedly impressive aesthetic sensibilities.
Nowhere is this issue better encapsulated than with Dream himself – brought to life by the sharp-jawed Tom Sturridge. To his credit, Sturridge does a remarkable job of capturing Dream’s withdrawn physicality and obvious distrust of the mortal world: it’s easy to believe that he’s spent the last 70 years in confinement. When it comes to Dream as a character, though, Sturridge’s performance isn’t enough to make for an engaging protagonist when the script is so dedicated to keeping the character true to his ever-brooding comic roots.
The exception to Dream’s stoicness comes when he’s playing off of other, more charismatic characters – Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Death, Jenna Coleman’s aforementioned Constantine, and Ferdinand Kingsley’s Hob all bring a welcome vivacity that rubs off on Dream himself. The trio more than make up for the lackluster crop of character introduced early in the series, but tragically it isn’t until nearly halfway through the series that The Sandman seems to understand the strength of pairing Dream with more vibrant personalities – and the end result means the back half of the series is far stronger than the front.
Ironically, of the show’s 10 episodes, the most memorable is “24/7” – a bottle-style episode which sees David Thewlis’ John Dee wreak havoc on a small-town diner and its patrons with the help of a magical ruby that can bend minds and wills – and hardly features Dream whatsover. The episode is as well-paced as it is chilling – an examination of the lies we tell ourselves and others to make life easier. Despite the fact that it never leaves the diner, the strength of the writing and performances (spearheaded by Thewlis) is a reminder of just how potent Gaiman’s work can be when firing on all cylinders.
The Sandman is a paradoxical series that boasts both the creativity of a Neil Gaiman comic and the budget of a Netflix original – an unlikely combination that could only have come about as the result of a 30+ year journey to bring such an elusive comic series to the screen. Though it may take a few episodes to find its footing, The Sandman’s commitment to staying true to Gaiman’s writing and impressive production design result in a high-budget, well-cast series which will no doubt satisfy long-awaiting fans of the comic run.
Netflix will release season one of The Sandman on August 5.
Photo: Liam Daniel/Netflix