Netflix's The Sandman is a fan's dream. Is that good enough?

The TV adaptation is extremely faithful to the original Neil Gaiman comics, and that's as tempting as it is frustrating.By David Sims

Not long after the 1989 launch of The Sandman, Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking comic-book series, came the inevitable question that plagues critically acclaimed smash hits—how best to translate it to the screen? The series’s central family, known as “The Endless,” live in a vividly cinematic world; each member personifies a natural force, including dreams, death, and desire. But Gaiman’s epic story spans eons and an ensemble of dozens. Its hero’s emotions could gently be described as inscrutable. None of that would easily fit into a two-hour movie, and so The Sandman has drifted for decades in search of the visual medium that could do it justice. Has it finally found its footing as a Netflix series?

Netflix has provided fertile ground for expensive-looking genre adaptations that cater to devoted fan bases, such as The Witcher, The Umbrella Academy, and A Series of Unfortunate Events. His usual policy of releasing entire seasons at once means, in theory at least, that a show is under less pressure to explain everything that happens in Episode 1. Sandman's original narrative is very slow. The first volume carefully assembles the details of the protagonist Dream's universe from him in the course of a treasure hunt. The Netflix adaptation, created by Gaiman, David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg, embraces that pace, letting things unfold with the care of a monthly comic rather than the forcefulness of weekly television. It produces some very high highs and very high lows and some languid lows.

I am an obsessive fan of The Sandman, which I would fervently say is one of the pinnacles of contemporary literature and the best example of how expansive and experimental the comics genre can be. For years, I devoured any news about potential film adaptations, worrying how Hollywood might screw things up. Gaiman at one point notoriously denounced a potential draft as "not just the worst Sandman script I've ever seen, but easily the worst script I've ever read." The rise of prestige television seemed to offer the perfect solution, ending the challenge of distilling a complex series into a couple of hours of plot.

However, that format poses an additional challenge: how do you keep the audience engaged? Devotees of The Sandman like myself will have a lot to rejoice about with the Netflix version, but I wonder what the show will mean for newcomers. The fantasy series is bright and flashy with an exciting set, which might be enough to draw audiences in during these quiet summer months. But its protagonist isn't easy to love, especially early on, and her motivations for much of the season are largely unknown. That ambiguity is by design: much of The Sandman's arc is about the audience coming to understand Dream (played by Tom Sturridge) as he also comes to understand himself. But it depends on the patience of the viewer to continue with him during that process.

The first six episodes of The Sandman’s 10-episode season largely pull from the first volume of Gaiman’s comic series. They follow Dream (whose other sobriquets include The Sandman and Morpheus), who rules over the Dreaming—a realm devoted to all of humanity’s bedtime imagination. In the premiere, Dream is kidnapped and imprisoned in the early 20th century by an occultist named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance). The story develops over decades as Dream escapes and then works to rebuild his kingdom, seeking lost artifacts and gathering up stray nightmares. During his journeys, he voyages to hell to barter with its ruler, Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), and meets up with his sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), the cheerful and levelheaded guardian of all mortality.

If that summary sounds like a lot, know that it only scratches the surface. Dream and Death have five other siblings, and Dream’s own territory is populated with colorful figures, some friendly and others quite malevolent. Sturridge plays Dream as initially aloof and grumpy, his edges softening just a little episode by episode. In the comics, he’s a chalk-white, goth-y string bean with a big tangle of bushy hair inspired by The Cure’s Robert Smith. This 2022 version is a little more male model than rock god, but Sturridge does have gravitas, and he particularly starts to come into focus once he’s with bubblier characters such as Death and the sorcerer-detective Johanna Constantine (played by Jenna Coleman and assuming the role of the books’ John Constantine).