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Review: Neil Gaiman Brings the Cosmic World of Dreams and Nightmares to Life in Netflix’s ‘The Sandman’

Review: Neil Gaiman Brings the Cosmic World of Dreams and Nightmares to Life in Netflix’s ‘The Sandman’

After over thirty years since its publication and several attempts at film adaptations, the highly-anticipated Netflix series The Sandman finally graces our screens.

Based on the DC comic series of the same name by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg, the first season adapts “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House.” The novelistic television series, developed by Gaiman, David S. Goyer (Foundation), Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman), stays true to the comics while expanding, altering, and diversifying some elements of the original story.  

In 1916, a cult called the Order of Ancient Mysteries led by amateur occultist Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) attempts to summon and entrap Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) but instead, they get Dream (Tom Sturridge), her younger brother.

The seven siblings of the Endless act as personifications of life-defining concepts: Dream, Death, Desire (Mason Alexander Park), Despair (Donna Preston), Destiny, Delirium, and Destruction. The latter three aren’t in this season, but we still get to see the twins Desire and Despair. Park’s gorgeous and cruel Desire reminds me of 1980s models rocking power suits and sleek haircuts. 

Each sibling has their own domain to rule, and though they are immortal, god-like beings with massive responsibilities to humanity, they still find time to be like a regular dysfunctional family. Their relationships are strained but some are closer than others. 

After decades of imprisonment, Dream (aka Morpheus, aka the King of Dreams, aka the Sandman) escapes and returns to his realm, the Dreaming, to find it crumbled and mostly abandoned. To regain power, he goes searching for his stolen tools —sand, helm, and ruby. Along the way he encounters characters like Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) and Abel (Asim Chaudhry), occult detective Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman), and the truth-seeking John Dee (David Thewlis). Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), the chief librarian in the Dreaming (who does much more than just tend to the books), sends Matthew the Raven (Patton Oswalt) to accompany Dream on his totem travels. 

Dream also visits Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie), the ruler of hell who speaks with a calmly wicked tone. Lucifer is a character that can be easily over the top but Christie perfectly blends menacing, authoritative, and cunning. I loved the contrast between the angelic hair and wardrobe with the enormous black wings. 

Meanwhile, the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), a rogue nightmare, is enjoying being a charismatic, well-dressed, eye-nabbing serial killer in the waking world. For him, Morpheus being free means his days of preying on the living are over, so he does what he can to maintain his own freedom.

It was a wise decision to make this a series because there are too many characters and individual story arcs for one film, even a series of films. Morpheus is the main protagonist but not all of the stories are centered on him. Sometimes those kinds of “narrative detours” can be distracting but not in the case of The Sandman. Of course, there were points when I was a little confused, like when an entire episode took place in a diner. However, I was too enthralled in the story to dwell on it. It felt almost like an anthology, especially with the introduction of 21-year-old Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai; formerly known as Kyo Ra), who finds herself connected to the world of the Dreaming while also trying to find her little brother.

I can see why many fans cite Death as their favorite character. An endearing, optimistic goth girl in place of the archetypal scythe-wielding skeletal Grim Reaper is truly amazing, especially since it also subverts the common misconception that all goths are doom and gloom and mean and scary. Death might be the most emotionally taxing role in the universe, and yet she’s the kindest member of the Endless, someone you actually want to see at the end. 

As with most, if not all, page-to-screen adaptations, people were upset with some of the casting choices, particularly Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death. The character appears in the comics as pale, and casting a Black actress was just so outrageous for some “fans.” Howell-Baptiste’s Death is so beautiful and mesmerizing and has the most soothing voice and presence. Anyone who finds her portrayal problematic clearly doesn’t understand the comic or its author at all. The characters have always been diverse.

It’s interesting how fans like to tell creators what to do with their own work. Had Gaiman not been involved in the production at all and a bunch of illogical changes were made against his wishes, that’s when backlash makes sense. But the author himself was heavily involved in the adaptation as an executive producer and a writer, which should be of comfort to true fans. If you’re attached to a specific version of a character, then maybe, I don’t know, only watch/read works with that version. 

As Sturridge said at the SDCC panel, “Each episode is a different film, it’s a different cohesive story, and that change is inflicted on their journey.” I would absolutely watch a supernatural detective series starring Jenna Coleman’s Johanna Constantine, or a three-hour movie following Vivienne Acheampong’s Lucienne and Mervyn Pumpkinhead (Mark Hamill) working in the Dreaming’s library. Following Howell-Baptiste’s Death as she makes her rounds would make for some heart-wrenching but captivating series. Holbrook’s Corinthian exudes main character energy. And I’ll simply watch anything with David Thewlis playing anyone. 

There’s also Hal (John Cameron Mitchell) and the colorful residents Rose lives with in Florida. Their “found family” dynamic is a show in itself. Plus, I’ve been a fan of Mitchell since Hedwig and the Angry Inch and seeing him perform is always a delight. 

Cinematographers Will Baldy (The Pact), Sam Heasman (Doctor Who), and George Steel (The Aeronauts) craft some beautiful visuals, maintaining the bleakness of a gothic fantasy while still incorporating fairy-tale elements. The art of Sandman is iconic and translating that onscreen is no easy feat but it was done. 

Having not previously read the comics, I immediately started reading Vol. 1 after I finished watching the ten episodes. I’m surprised just how much the series stayed true to the source material; it included some dialogue word for word, and some imagery comes right off the page. You definitely don’t need to be familiar with the comics to enjoy/follow The Sandman TV series. But if you are, there are still some changes that you won’t expect. 

It’s the type of fantastical storytelling that feels grounded in reality. All-powerful, non-humans still have very human traits and behavior — pettiness, jealousy, arrogance. Otherworldly realms don’t seem too implausible. Characters may be hunting down a bag of magical sand but they have to visit someone’s ex-girlfriend to retrieve it.

The Sandman is a cosmic tale of dreams, nightmares, humanity, and morality. With a stellar cast, impressive SFX, and the rich characters and wonderful words of Gaiman, all make The Sandman a magical series you can’t miss. 

The Sandman begins streaming Aug 5 on Netflix.

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