For years, attempts have been made to adapt Neil Gaiman's comic series “The Sandman” for movies and television and now, more than 30 years later, the 75-issue story is seeing the screen in the Netflix series The Sandman, starring Tom Sturridge.
The Sandman begins in The Dreaming, ruled by The Sandman, the Master of Dreams, or Morpheus, (Tom Sturridge). But when Dream is captured and imprisoned for a century, followed to his captors by his raven Jessamy, that event impacts both the dream world and the waking world. Eventually, Dream escapes but three items connected to his magical powers have been stolen, his ruby, his sand and his helm, which he needs to recover to mend the damage that happened as a result of his capture.
Gaiman himself has stated that since the release of the comic book series, he has been trying to stop “bad” adaptations of his work from happening, but when it came to this approach, in which he serves as a producer and writer as well, everyone was on the same page in terms of staying true to the comic, but having some unexpected departures to keep original fans on their toes.
“I remember when [Allan Heinberg] and [David S. Goyer] and I sat down,...before we got together to break down the whole series, one of the things we were talking about was the fact that on the one hand, we really wanted it to be faithful,...'The Sandman' fans had to watch it and go, 'this is Sandman,'” Neil Gaiman sad to Yahoo Canada. “But on the other hand, we wanted to give them a reason to watch and we wanted them to have things that they wouldn't know how they were going to turn out.”
“We wanted things where the plot might change just a little bit between the version in the comics and the version they were going to see on screen to keep them on their toes.”
That was quite a departure from what showrunner Allan Heinberg thought Gaiman’s approach to the project was going to be when they first met (technically, met for the second time, after Gaiman signed a comic book for Heinberg at a 1996 signing).
“I thought, oh Neil is going to want to be very protective and do the book as it was written, and…it just wasn't going to work to do a shot-for-shot, panel-for-panel execution of this thing,” Heinberg said. “I remember us immediately talking about the challenge of having your lead be naked and mute and in a cage for an entire episode, and how do we generate audience affection for him.”
“At that very first dinner we talked about Jessamy as a way of seeing Dream connect with another creature from his world and Neil was so into the idea, and so supportive of it, and we all agreed, oh, the fans are going to love this… It suddenly became very easy and clear that we have the same mission, which was to tell the true heart of the story, and to surprise and delight fans who know it by heart.”
'I wanted to still be able to tell a story with my body when I couldn't speak'
For Tom Sturridge, the fact that Dream is naked and captured, without any dialogue for much of the beginning of the series, stressed the importance of establishing and embodying the physicality of the character.
“The physicality was so important to me, I was so aware that for the first 45 minutes of an audience's experience with him, he was going to be silent and he was going to be naked,” Sturridge said to Yahoo Canada. “I wanted you to think of him as someone who has been metabolizing dreams for so long that his flesh has just disappeared, and he's just bone and sinew.”
“It was really important for me to figure out a way to create that with my body, which essentially just takes time, and I had enough time to do that, and then just the economy of expression, because I wanted to still be able to tell a story with my body when I couldn't speak. So it was about really plotting a through-line through that imprisonment section, to deciding the power of [looking] into someone's eyes for the first time, or moving for the first time, or standing for the first time, and just finding ways to create significance and movement.”
The one aspect of Morpheus creator Neil Gaiman needed to sign off on
While the physicality is one aspect of Dream, when he does speak, the Morpheus dialogue you hear is unlike any other character created.
“[Tom] was the only one who could say the dialogue and make you absolutely believe it,” Neil Gaiman said. “It's slightly archaic, it's very formal, it's always sort of pre-planned as if he's thought about what he's going to say.”
“The one thing that I would always want to see and sign off on, and would occasionally just change a little bit, would be Morpheus dialogue, because it has very specific rhythms… It doesn't necessarily come easily to writers.”
For Tom Sturridge that was one piece of advice he received from Gaiman that really assisted in his execution of this dialogue.
“The thing that I held with me was a piece of advice that Neil gave me, which was, Morpheus has every thought that one could possibly conceive of, because he has existed for millennia, and therefore when he speaks, he's never discovering anything in the moment,” Sturridge revealed. “He should speak as if it is etched in stone, he knows exactly what he's going to say and it has fearsome clarity.”
Meeting the characters of 'The Sandman'
While Tom Sturridge certainly leads us through this fantasy world, The Sandman is absolutely an ensemble cast of characters that really bring out the philosophical, existential questions that develop through the narrative.
One of those character is Lucienne, played by Vivienne Acheampong, chief librarian and a guardian of The Dreaming, and essentially Dream’s right hand, that often has more trust from the inhabitants of The Dreaming than the Master of Dreams himself.
“I think what I love about Lucienne is that she's so compassionate, she's very loyal, she's hard working and she takes a step back, she takes things in, and then she says what she needs to say,” Acheampong told Yahoo Canada. “I think she's very protective of The Dreaming, she's very protective of Morpheus, she respects him, she understands that he has this huge responsibility on his shoulders, he has all of our dreams inside of him, all of our thick fears, our thoughts, our passions, desires for everything, and that's a lot.”
“There's no other character, no other being beyond Lucianne, who’s spent more time with Dream and if you spend millennia together, you forge something extraordinary,” Tom Sturridge added. “But because they have a hierarchy of their positions, there is a level of formality and that love sort of has to simmer underneath that.”
While Dream was captured, nightmare The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook), escapes into the waking world, leaving murder in his path, proving to be a challenge for Dream.
“Even though it was terrifying, just the simple concept of playing and embodying a character that would feed and feast on your eyeballs, that for me was just so fascinating,” Holbrook said.
For Mason Alexander Park, who plays Dream’s sibling Desire, they actually tweeted Neil Gaiman directly to ask about who was casting for The Sandman, wanting to be part of this project, in this part in particular.
“Desire is a very attractive individual, just on every level, from the aesthetics to the way that they fold into the story and sort of act as this foil for Dream,” Park said. “Someone who's deeply loving and deeply complicated, Desire I think, of all the Endless, shifts and changes probably the most, as the concept itself does in our own lives.”
“There was something about that malleability and the complete three dimensionality that really excited me as an actor, because the colours that I then get to paint with over the course of this series are probably more vibrant than any other role that I've had the opportunity to play… Just reading it, even from a fan's perspective, but from an actor's perspective, you just kind of go like, ‘Ah, this would be a really delicious and juicy kind of part to bite into.’”
It's certainly understandable that "The Sandman" story proved challenging for television and movie producers to translate to the screen, with its extensive cannon of characters and complexity of plot. While those who are less familiar with the story will have a lot of wrap their head around, The Sandman certainly still works on its own to wrap you into this mythic and horrific world, while letting those larger emotional elements and questions about humanity breath through the story.
"The Sandman" story is incredibly beloved, and historically very protected, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't let this Netflix adaption have its own space to expand on that great storytelling. At the very least, it will make you run to read, or re-read, the comics.