Good fantasy walks the fine line between the grand, the unbelievable, and the real. If it is too complicated to be imagined or understood, it might not speak to the audience. And if it is a little too approachable, is it fantastical enough?
It only took about three decades for The Sandman, based on Neil Gaiman’s 75-volume DC-Vertigo comic books, to arrive on our screens. At the end of the first season, it is safe to say that this is fantasy done right.
The 10-episode Netflix series, created by Gaiman, David S Goyer and Allan Heinberg, is receiving love across the board – from ardent, if slightly cautious fans, and from an audience that has not yet visited the world of dreams via the page.
The Sandman follows Morpheus, Lord of The Dreaming and one of the Endless seven (along with Death, Desire, Despair, Delight/Delirium, Destiny and Destruction). Morpheus travels through realms and realities, the present and the past. He interacts, spars, becomes friends and more with humans whose heads he fills up with dreams, visions and stories.
As the series begins, Dream is captured by wannabe magus Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) and held in captivity for over a century, stripped of his tools and subsequently his power. In his absence, his realm falls to ruin. Most of his subjects abandon the Dreaming and the waking world is thrown into chaos. Once free, Morpheus embarks on a quest to retrieve his stolen helm, a pouch of sand, and a ruby of menacingly infinite power.
Mostly true to the books, the story travels between eras in an attempt to establish Dream’s omnipresence and endlessness – a task that had been easier to achieve with art. Netflix has been able to do this through masterful world-building, seamless writing and an incredibly talented and invested cast and crew.
Tom Sturridge’s Dream is ethereal. He mopes and sulks, falls in love, and holds grudges like a man, but is never overly humanised. Dream is not a mortal but an anthropomorphic manifestation of an endless concept, as he reminds those around him who may have forgotten the extent and expanse of his power in the century he spent locked up. A century is a blip in time to the Endless. To those who found their lives impacted on Earth and in the Dreaming, it is a series of unfortunate consequences. It is these consequences that we witness in the first season – and they are as monumental and grand as promised.
Vivienne Acheampong is Lucienne, the head librarian of the Dreaming. In Morpheus’s absence, she takes on the role of the realm’s caretaker. She is one the Lord of the Dreaming is given to listening to. Her, and his new raven Mathhew (voiced by Patton Oswalt), a being that can travel between realms.
In The Sandman, Death is not the scythe-carrying, hooded male figure, but a woman of empathy, kindness and love, portrayed beautifully by the incredible Kirby Howell-Baptiste. Death reminds Dream that it is the job of the Endless to serve the mortals, not command them. A fact that their sibling Desire is not in agreement with, brought from the page to screen by the incomparable Mason Alexander Park. Desire shines with menace and mischief – a painfully perfect foil to Despair, who makes a short but impactful appearance in this season.
Boyd Holbrook (Narcos) is hauntingly scary as Corinthian, the ultimate nightmare. Stephen Fry does his best Stephen Fry. Jenna Coleman is already a fan favourite as the exorcist Johanna Constantine.
Though this may be the first time we see the comic series adapted to screen, this cast is not the first set of talent to have brought The Sandman to life. In 2020, Audible released The Sandman audiobook, followed by a second part in in 2021. Directed by Dirk Maggs, with music by James Hannigan, the show’s voice cast included James McAvoy, David Tennant, Arthur Darvill, Michael Sheen, Riz Ahmed and Kat Dennings. A poetic production, the audio series adeptly brought alive the comic book series’s complex and conflicted characters. It is an incredible feat, given the visual nature of the source material.
Faithful to the comics as they may be, some slight deviations are to be expected for the screen version. A significant move away from the books that has left purists dissatisfied is the casting of Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones) as Lucifer Morningstar, the Lord of Hell.
Morningstar of the graphic novels was as glamorous as David Bowie and looked every bit like a 1970s rock star. The Audible production found a fitting fallen angel in Michael Sheen’s deliciously malicious voice acting. Christie elevates Lucifer, in stature and presence.
Neil Gaiman defended the casting decision, reminding audiences that Sandman was always “woke”. Indeed, something as human as gender does not impact the magnificence of the worlds created by Gaiman.
But I wonder if this is simply about the gender. As a reader, listener and now viewer of The Sandman, the casting alters the mood and energy of both the character and of Hell. This does not essentially have to be a bad thing. In the series, the graphic novel’s blazing hellfires make way for the grieving gloom of Christie’s inferno. This is hell – it’s morbid, macabre and scary.
The show makes a similar statement about the waking world in one of the season’s very successful episodes. An on-the-run John Dee (David Thewlis) unleashes the power of Dream’s Ruby on a group of unsuspecting friends at a diner, travelling to the deepest recesses of the human mind to reveal the potentially toxic power of unadulterated truth. The episode is a great testament to how The Sandman is willing to take its audience from the grand to the granular. We even meet a certain playwright – but perhaps that story is parked for another season.
The Sandman is a masterful adaptation of a legendary piece of pop culture. It is strong and gentle, dark and – when you least expect it – even funny.