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Why Netflix's vision of The Sandman is disappointing

The long-awaited debut of The Sandman comics as a lavish Netflix TV series falls short of greatness because of a clear visual and storytelling style

The Sandman season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. (Courtesy Netflix)

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The Sandman has always been considered a difficult, if not impossible, story to film. Neil Gaiman’s cult comics series, with its dense and nuanced storylines, scores of important characters and frequent jumps in time and space, can be a challenge to translate on the screen. It might seem like a mug’s game to try and translate the rich weirdness of the comics into a coherent visual narrative. This, then, is the main challenge of the new Netflix version of The Sandman, which dropped on 5 August.

I have watched the 10-episode season 1 twice now (it covers the first two Sandman books: Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House) and it left me with mixed feelings, to put it mildly. The second viewing, a slower, more immersive affair, reveals flaws, but also green shoots of improvement. But before we get there, here’s some basic information. Also, I might add, I am assuming you have watched the series, so be warned, here be (some) spoilers.

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The Sandman universe is an original mythological cycle dreamt up by Gaiman and tells the story of Morpheus, the King of Dreams. He is an anthropomorphic personification of his function, as the administrator of Dreaming and dreamers, and he has family. His six other siblings—Death, Desire, Destiny, Despair, Destruction and Delirium—are beings like him: the Endless. They are nearly as old as the Universe, older than gods, greater than gods, the most powerful entities bar God and the Devil.

They rule their own realms and are incredibly powerful, but, as a family, they are not without their petty squabbles. The 75 volumes of the comics, serialised between 1988-96, were something radically new: the non-superhero comics. As the writer Norman Mailer said about it at the time, “Along with everything else, Sandmanis a comic strip for intellectuals, and I say it’s about time.” But the story isn’t just about the Endless; rather, it’s about ordinary people, emperors, gods and animals, and how they interact with the Endless, and their own lives and their urges. From another standpoint, it is about Morpheus himself: a study in how set in his ways an entity nearly as old as time can be, and if he can change, to what extent.

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A panel from The Sandman comics.
A panel from The Sandman comics. (Courtesy DC Comics)

As you can probably tell, it’s all very heady stuff, which is further enriched by a rich and phantasmagoric visual style, jokes, puns and an immersion in pop culture. The books have horror, love, tenderness, brutality, philosophical highs and vulgar lows. With The Sandman, Gaiman created a work of art that was perfect, a self-contained arc of brilliance, and that is a tough act to follow.

The show is enjoyable enough for non-book readers and better than much else on TV right now. But it is also deeply flawed, for the simple reason that one has to compare the show to the books. At times, the TV show runs like a mirror image of the book’s plot, but an inferior one written by someone with less talent than Gaiman. The show is curiously flat, especially the first half of the season. The wonder isn’t transporting enough, the scary bits aren’t terrifying enough, the jokes aren’t funny enough. In order to make the TV series as acceptable as possible to as many people as possible, the heart of the stories has been diluted.

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This is a product of key decisions that the showrunners seem to have taken, both in terms of the narrative as well as the visuals. Let’s look at the narrative first.

The Sandman has no villains. Morpheus has many adversaries, flitting in and out of the stories. But no big, overarching nemesis. If anything, Dream is his own worst enemy. For reasons that have more to do with creating tension, the first season sets up three villains: the renegade nightmare The Corinthian, the fundamentalist John Dee, and, in one episode, Lucifer Morningstar—the Devil.

These characters are different from the books not because of how they look but because of the motivations that drive them. Thus, the TV version of the maniacal John Dee—who, in the book, just wants to destroy the world and mess with people’s heads for the fun of it—is turned into a naïve man who is tired of being lied to, and wants people to be truthful to each other, no matter what the cost. David Thewlis does such a fantastically creepy job as John Dee though, it’s a shame the character is so sanitised.

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One great obstacle to the show’s storytelling is the outsized space given to The Corinthian. This suave, homicidal maniac of a nightmare is first shown to tutor the occultist Roderick Burgess as to the nature of his captive, and later manipulates John Dee into trying to destroy Morpheus. So far, so ho-hum. A sure sign of the show’s drift towards conventionality is the fact that The Corinthian is portrayed as a player of the long game. Whereas what makes him so frightening in the comics is that he is a creature of impulse—he does horrific things because he likes it, because it is his nature. The Corinthian doesn’t plot anyone’s downfall. He just takes a knife to their eyes.

In episode 4, A Hope In Hell, Morpheus comes up against Lucifer Morningstar, played with menace, grace, poise and just the correct hint of vulnerability by the amazing Gwendoline Christie. Although gripping in its own way, the show ruins the power of that particular story by drowning it in a series of visual clichés pulled out, seemingly, from Peter Jackson’s Lord Of The Rings movies and Game Of Thrones (GoT). Lucifer and Hell have a lived-in quality in the books: They clearly have a life before and after we encounter them. In the show, it’s as if Hell has been cobbled together to provide Morpheus with an obstacle to overcome; and the magnificent Morningstar has seemingly been mooching about in costumes borrowed from Daenerys Targaryen, waiting for Dream to fall into her trap. When Dream strides away victorious, doing the slow-motion “hero” walk to a swelling orchestral score, it is so far away from the spirit of The Sandman that it’s laughable.

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The episode, however, also contains the single greatest moment of the first season. It is the look of utter despair and loss on Christie’s face when Morpheus tells Lucifer that she too is subservient to dreams: the dream of Heaven. And this begs the question, with a story so brilliant, with lines that any screenplay writer would kill to write, why do we need the contrived tension? I can go on and on in this vein, about the tone-deaf portrayals of pivotal characters like Cain and Abel, Johanna Constantine, Roderick Burgess, Hector and Lyta Hall. But they are all symptoms of the same problem.

There is a jarring tonal sameness to most modern fantasy/horror TV, a trend inaugurated by GoT nearly a decade ago. While this underlit, grey-black tone might have suited GoT, and even more recent series like The Witcher, or The Wheel Of Time, or Shadow And Bone, it feels a curious stylistic choice for The Sandman. It is a dark and serious story, for sure, but what heightened its effect for generations of readers were the bright, sometimes disorientating, shimmering colours used by the inkers of the stories.

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In the TV show, so many effective moments fall flat because it’s all unrelentingly under-lit and uniformly drab. What the showrunners clearly don’t get is that the scope of The Sandmanmythology can contain all kinds of stories, and thus many kinds of visual treatments. Episodes could look like something out of Breaking Bad, something out of The Sopranos, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, Game Of Thrones, or Love, Death & Robots. Dream is the Prince of Stories, and all stories reside in the Dreaming. Which is why, every volume of the books, and sometimes even different panels in the same story, can look radically different.

This blandness extends to the Sandman’s depiction as well. Tom Sturridge does a valiant job as Morpheus but he is limited by the screenplay. The decision to show Dream at all points like a proportionally correct human being is highly limiting when it comes to portraying the extreme weirdness of Morpheus. Sturridge’s lines, though taken directly from the book, just don’t land as hard sometimes, because, to the viewer, it just comes across as a human being saying grand things.

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Netflix evidently wants The Sandman to be a hit, like Stranger Things is a hit. But it’s doubtful if that will ever be the case, given how truly dark, elliptical and meta the story is. The show-makers should ditch the attempt to gain broad popularity and focus on telling the stories as well as they can. This doesn’t have to mean slavishly following the comics but developing a distinct visual style that separates it from the competition. Right now, The Sandman is neither one thing nor another. As a fan, the best thing I can say about the show in its present form is that I am relieved that it isn’t bad…just disappointing.

But there are some green shoots. The second half of the season, covering the plot from Book 2, The Doll’s House, is much better than the first. Also, the show’s treatment of some storylines—like Dream’s friendship with the immortal Hob Gadling or Mason Alexander Park’s pitch-perfect depiction of Desire—gives hope that subsequent seasons will be better. They better be, considering the best stories of The Sandman still lie ahead.

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