Netflix’s The Sandman is an adaptation of the iconic and groundbreaking DC Comics series written by Neil Gaiman, and while it sometimes stunningly faithful to the source material (with its haunting Dave McKean covers and fantastical art from people like Sam Kieth and Mike Dringenberg), it actually bears a much stronger resemblance to an adaptation of a different iconic and groundbreaking DC Comics book that was published just a couple of years earlier: Watchmen.
Zack Snyder’s movie is also sometimes stunningly faithful, pulling dialogue and images straight from Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’ book and even retaining the Cold War anxieties of the original even though it came out decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall. But beyond the faithfulness, it seemed pretty easy to argue that Snyder didn’t really get it. The movie doesn’t really say anything the way the comic did; a lot of characters move around like puzzle pieces just trying to get into the spots the original book put them in; and (in one notable example) Snyder seems to completely miss that the politics of one character are supposed to be, you know, bad.
Sandman, thank the Endless, is not as dopey or mindless as anything that Zack Snyder has put his name on, but how much praise can you really give something for doing what is essentially the bare minimum in replicating an acclaimed work of art and transferring it into a different medium? Gaiman’s Sandman is really good. It would be pretty good if you rewrote it as a novel, or a video game, or—most relevant here—a TV show. But unless there’s a compelling reason for Sandman to be a novel or a video game or—again—a TV show, it’s hard not to just say “read the comic instead.”
Netflix’s Sandman doesn’t really have that compelling reason, which is to say that it’s…still pretty good? If you want to see Sandman, if you want to see the personification of an abstract concept naked and trapped in a basement for 100 years, if you want to see a madman with a magic ruby impose his will on the patrons of a 24-hour diner, or if you want to see a murderer with too many mouths, Netflix’s Sandman has all of that and more. But ticking off those boxes (good as those boxes are) is really all it has to offer.
The series, for those who have not read the books, centers on Morpheus, the Lord Of Dreams (often just called “Dream” for short) as he goes about rediscovering what makes humanity special and rebuilding his fantastical dream realm after being captured by a mean human—all while pursuing a rogue nightmare and learning how to be less of a dick.
Narratively, it hews very close to the first two volumes of the books (it starts with Dream’s imprisonment and ends at the “Cereal convention”), but at the risk of trying to be overly cute with it, the most important thing it loses in the transition is the dreaminess of all of it. Morpheus’ realm, the place where he creates dreams and which is supposed to be home to all sorts of incredible fantasy (as in the genre), creatures, and vistas, is typically depicted here as a wasteland with a lot of empty fields. Similarly, Dream’s ornate palace seen in establishing shots is one disappointingly dull room with flat stone walls.
Also, despite Gaiman’s talent for fairytales, the Sandman comics often skewed more toward horror than anything else, with an ever-present spookiness that isn’t really replicated here. A brief team-up with a certain British hellblazer is greatly sanitized in the show, not only in its depiction of a dilapidated apartment belonging to someone utterly consumed by their dreams but in that certain British hellblazer herself—who is confusingly stylish and charming for someone who everyone else seems to regard as a…chain-smoking, trench coat-wearing, Sting-lookalike dirtbag, which she is very much not in this incarnation. (At this point it’s worth noting that this show does not explicitly take place in any version of the DC Universe, despite a couple of superhero Easter eggs, so there’s no Martian Manhunter, Arkham Asylum, or Wesley Dodds Sandman.)
But both here and in the books, Sandman aggressively and explicitly turns into a horror story at one point thanks to the aforementioned madman with a ruby, and while the episode concerning the 24-hour diner in the show is faithful to what happens in the book, a few specific decisions from the writers completely sap it of the this-will-fuck-you-up horror of the original. That one was about robbing people of what makes them them and seeing how they react, sort of a cosmic-level terror, whereas this version uses the same events to make a point about free will that even Dream doesn’t buy when it’s presented to him.
Speaking of Dream, Tom Sturridge’s performance as Morpheus—with his wild black hair and perpetually pursed lips—is often very flat, but it’s clear that’s by design. He sees himself as being above every other living thing, and his tangible softening over the course of the story is one clever choice the show makes, even if his growth at the end of the season renders one stand-out episode irrelevant by seemingly undoing its emotional catharsis. (Speaking of that stand-out episode, which features Dream’s sister, the show makes the puzzling decision of combing two of the best stories from the books into one because they follow the same theme, so it’s one good episode instead of two great episodes.)
Gwendoline Christie’s disappointing Lucifer doesn’t get to do anything interesting (possibly to account for her CG wings needing to be there); Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s Death is great (she’s more somber and mature than she is in the comics, which helps some of her story’s emotional beats hit really hard); and Patton Oswalt’s talking Raven named Matthew is much less distracting than he could’ve been. Almost every episode pairs Dream up with a different character, especially early on, which wisely gives Sturridge an opportunity to play his Super Goth against more dynamic personalities, and though that manipulation is heavy-handed at times, Sturridge’s watery eyes do a lot of good work whenever someone works up the nerve to make some emotional plea to the Dream Lord.
The best performance in the show, though, comes from Boyd Holbrook as The Corinthian. The character is an escaped nightmare from Dream’s realm who was created to mirror the worst of humanity’s impulses, and he accepts his duties with a…big toothy grin. The Corinthian is supposed to be irredeemable, an unrepentant murderer who kills for fun, but his role in the story (and the amount of screen time he gets) requires him to be at least somewhat understandable, if not outright sympathetic.
This is damning with faint praise, but Netflix’s The Sandman, like Zack Snyder’s Watchmen, is one of those “this is as close as anyone could’ve hoped for” adaptations. It follows the comic closely and hits all of the good stuff from the comic, so it is at least a pretty good version of that story—because, again, that story on its own is good. But the transition to live-action doesn’t really reveal anything new about Morpheus or his siblings or their shifting perspectives on the lives of mortals or why we should watch, not read, this all unfold.