The Sandman Transforms a Visionary Epic into a Formulaic Fantasy – Tilt Magazine

It is never only a Dream.
Neil Gaiman’s sweeping and visionary epic challenged the literary notion of what a comic could be. Both all-encompassing and intimate, its personification of dreams spanned every plane of existence, awing readers with its mesmerizing visuals, complex narratives, and philosophical revelations. No surprise it was considered impossible to adapt. Enter Netflix, taking on this daunting adaptation with Gaiman on board as a producer to help shepherd it to the screen faithfully.
Yet, Gaiman adaptations have a history of being hit-or-miss. For every Coraline, there is an American Gods (although, that first season was incredible). But with a budget of $15 million per episode, the streamer seems confident in its success and ultimate longevity, making old and new fans alike excited at the prospect of a great mature fantasy, à la Game of Thrones
The Sandman’s first ten episodes are finally here, and the show is another disappointing entry in Gaiman’s Hollywood catalogue of “misses”.
With unfettered anticipation, I sat back and eagerly waited for the studio logos to pass and for the famous Morpheus, Dream of the Endless to grace the screen. Thirty minutes in, the only word I could muster was “lacking”. After finishing the season, it remained a very fitting label.
Netflix’s adaptation is lacking in every sense of the word: from its visuals, to its atmosphere, and to its ultimate philosophical punch. For a story that entails so much, the show is rather limiting in its cinematic design. It comes across more like the work of an artisan rather than an artist, prioritizing functionality in favour of an original and provocative vision. The production is littered with formulaic flourishes, boasting cliched musical stings, bland lighting, and tired camera work. Its legendary source material is zapped of its wonder, poeticism, and complexity. What results is more of a surface-level teen fantasy rather than the mature piece of fiction many hoped for.
The Sandman centres on Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), The king of dreams and the ruler of the Dreaming (an amorphous dreamscape) who’s captured in 1916 by occultist Rodrick Burgess (Charles Dance) and his Order of Ancient Mysteries. After being held captive for over a century, he escapes but finds his tools missing and his kingdom in disarray, with certain nightmares like the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) on the loose in the waking world. He sets out on a quest to recover his powerful artifacts and restore his realm, all the while having run-ins with various biblical and literary figures such as Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie).
This being a screen adaptation, there are always going to be differences from the original text. But the changes here are more a byproduct of cutting corners than a consequence of a different medium. The utterly inventive and clever outcomes of Dream’s trials and tribulations distinctly lack emotional weight as Gaiman’s introspective parables are rendered trite occurrences. Moreover, the show’s deviations and forced plotlines often detract from its thematic and philosophical ambitions, as they hope to cash in on safe industry trends rather than allow its interesting narrative to embrace its innate originality. It results in an experience that is startingly safe and ultimately dull, as it remains in neutral all the way to its conclusion.
For viewers unversed in the world of The Sandman, they will only find a trivial and serviceable fantasy that evokes the soft whimsy of efforts like the Narnia films, rather than the majesty and cathartic heft of works like The Lord of The Rings. With so much of the show gravitating towards mature subject matter (explicit sexuality, graphic violence, and profanity) it’s baffling how much of it feels like a children’s fable.
It’s also distinctly missing a vibrant opening credits sequence and chapter titles (which unabashedly look like basic Word fonts) that one would expect from a tale like this. With so much visual splendor to work off of the showrunners, unfortunately, opt for the middling route, drenching almost every scene in either dark hues or an odd soapy sheen that dilutes much of the original text’s virtuoso. Its clunky effects only add insult to injury. Though, the show still retains enough to make it watchable.
That’s probably this adaptation’s greatest sin. It’s just merely watchable. It fails to challenge its audience, holding our hands until no room is left for interpretation and discovery. It constantly reminds the viewer of what location and timeline it’s set in, even when it’s previously made abundantly clear. Signaling that The Sandman clearly doesn’t trust its audience to buy into its vision.
Where the show does excel is in its performances. Tom Sturridge is a natural fit for the contemplative and brooding Dream. His deep, but longing voice vividly brings this revered character to life. Boyd Holbrook is also a highlight as the garish and devilishly charming Corinthian. Despite him being forced to don a wicked pair of black shades he still manages to possess great range, radiating with a palpable sense of vitality. Stephen Fry, Gwendoline Christie, and David Thewlis also round out the cast with notable skill. Newcomers like Kyo Ra and Vivienne Acheampong show their inexperience, but mostly hold their own against the more seasoned members. Voice performances from Patton Oswalt and Mark Hamill are also great, with Hamill’s portrayal of Mervyn Pumpkinhead being the most memorable, despite having a modicum of screentime.
The Sandman does begin to find somewhat of a footing in its second half (with episodes five and six being the strongest) but by then it’s already played most of its hand. Hopefully, this season will be a learning experience and, if renewed, might come into its own. But as it is, it’s another in a long line of mediocre Netflix adaptations, and an aggressively underwhelming one at that.
Prabhjot Bains is a Toronto-based film writer and critic who has structured his love of the medium around three indisputable truths- the 1970s were the best decade for American cinema, Tom Cruise is the greatest sprinter of all time, and you better not talk about fight club. His first and only love will be cinema and he will jump at the chance to argue why his movie opinion is much better than yours. His film interests are diverse, as his love of Hollywood is only matched by his affinity for international cinema. You can reach Prabhjot on Instagram @prabhjotbains96.
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