Dina Reviews: The Sandman (Netflix Season 1)

I love The Sandman. That should come as no surprise to anyone who’s read my blog. I’ve written about my love for Neil Gaiman’s marvelous fantasy-horror comic before, reviewed the Audible adaptation and talked a lot about the character of Wanda from one of the storylines, and in both those posts I mentioned how excited I was for the upcoming Netflix series.

Well, now the Netflix series is here. I was lucky enough to get to see a preview of the first episode a couple of days in advance (signed up on a list, and got my own Netflix VIP number for the occasion and everything!) and then quickly binged through the rest of the first season when it was officially released. Ten episodes of roughly 45 minutes each, which together adapt and cover the first two storylines from the comic: Preludes & Nocturnes and A Doll’s House.

Mmm… okay, just in case there are some people here who DON’T know The Sandman and are all confused as to why I’m talking about the Spider-Man villain here: The Sandman was a comic written by Neil Gaiman who ran for 75 issues and a handful of specials, from 1989-1996. It was published by DC comics, and was the flagship series for DC’s Vertigo imprint, which published comics for a mature audience (and often not about superheroes at all). The titular Sandman is really “Dream of the Endless,” the creator and ruler of dreams and nightmares. He’s the third oldest of seven siblings called “the Endless,” each one an anthropomorphic personification of a universal concept: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (formerly Delight).

The comic begins sometime during World War 1, when an occultist and cult leader named Roderick Burgess tries an ancient ritual in order to capture and imprison Death itself. For reasons not entirely clear, the ritual goes slightly wrong, and the cult instead captures Death’s younger brother, Dream. Who then remains a prisoner of the cult for several decades… until he escapes in the modern day. What follows is a long and complicated story about Dream regaining and rebuilding his lost kingdom, dealing with the repercussions of his long absence (including an escaped nightmare named The Corinthian)…, and coming to terms with a few unpleasant truths about himself. Oh, and there’s gods and demons, and betrayals and murders, and friendships and romances, and relationships that go to hell… LITERALLY in some cases.

We all good? Okay, now onto the Netflix series. After the amazing Job Neil Gaiman did with adapting Good Omens (a book he wrote with the late, great Sir Terry Pratchett) for Amazon Prime, it’s clearer than ever that it was the right call to have him so heavily involved in this adaptation. While there are pretty big differences from comic to screen, the essence of the story and the characters has survived more or less intact. There are a few differences; some chars have been dropped, some have been altered in minor or major ways, and some actions are different, or done for different reasons, even if for the most part we tend to end up roughly the same place as the comic did.

The visuals are spectacular (you really see how much money they’ve spent on this; there are blockbuster movies that doesn’t look this good!) and the actors are superb. Tom Sturridge as Dream may not look exactly like the one from the comics, but he has the voice and the mannerisms down pat — and SOMEHOW he manages to look vaguely inhuman. I don’t know how he does it, but you look at Tom Sturridge’s portrayal of Dream and you immediately get that he’s not human. The other actors are likewise great… I think I have to give a particular shout-out to David Thewlis as the antagonistic John Dee. Remembering the Harry Potter movies, I always thought David Thewlis was miscast as Remus Lupin; he gave off too much of a “creepy” vibe…. well, he’s absolutely PERFECT as John Dee.

Kirby Howell-Baptiste is really only in one episode, but she totally steals the show as Death. Desire is brilliantly played by Mason Alexander Park, who just like Justin Vivian Bond from the Audible adaptation manages to give Desire JUST the right amount of charm. The final Endless to appear in this season is Despair, played by Donna Preston, and… I kind of have to take a moment to appreciate what the show did with her.

Despair is really only in one scene, but she’s probably the most altered of the Endless (that we’ve seen so far), and I’m just really FASCINATED with this interpretation. Whereas the Despair of the comics was always naked, and had a slightly monstrous appearance, in the Netflix show she looks completely human, and as you can see she’s not naked either… but just LOOK at that outfit. The washed-out colours, the knitted jacket, the baggy sweats, the unkempt hair. That’s EXACTLY how I would expect the embodiment of despair to dress. Especially with Donna Preston’s portrayal of her; whereas the Despair of the comic came across as a little colder and angrier, this Despair is clearly suffering from severe depression and doesn’t have the ENERGY for strong emotions… much less for getting care of herself. In the comic, Despair and Destiny were the two Endless I couldn’t quite connect with… but this one scene with Donna Preston has given me a whole new appreciation for Despair… and perhaps I understand her a little more now.

Also, the series has Patton Oswalt and Mark Hamill providing the voices of Matthew the Raven and Merv Pumpkinhead, respectively. And Stephen Fry as the chivalrous Gilbert. And… let’s just say all the actors are amazing, okay?

So, visuals are great and the acting is great… now comes the big question. What about the STORY? The TONE and FEEL?

Good news: that’s great too.

I’d say the show is slightly lighter and softer, less “adult” than the comic overall. Well, there’s more swearing because the characters aren’t in a DC comic and are allowed to say “fuck” if they want, but other than that.. The imagery isn’t quite as dark and gruesome and there’s almost a complete lack of the casual nudity that the comic would occasionally indulge in. Well, there are a couple of naked butts in a few episodes, and Dream spends much of the first episode naked, but other than that this show’s characters cover up a lot more than their comics counterparts. Despair being the most obvious example, since her comics counterpart never wore a stitch of clothing… but other scenes from the comic as well; John Dee was mostly naked in the comic but wears pyjamas in this version.  Rose Walker had a couple of semi-nude scenes in the comic, but here she stays fully clothed even when sleeping (mostly because she generally ends up falling asleep in her clothes). Oh, and the early Sandman issues had a somewhat weird fascination with rape and sexual assault, or attempted sexual assault, but that’s been heavily toned down here. 

And… maybe it’s just me, but the series is notably less EERIE than the comic could get.

Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. As anyone who’s a fan of the comic will tell you, The Sandman started out more as a horror comic with clear roots in the DC universe, and the first seven issues, which make up the story Preludes and Nocturnes, is a little uneven overall. Oh, they’re not seen as BAD by any means, but it’s clear that Neil Gaiman hadn’t quite found the tone and feel yet. It was with the standalone issue 8, The Sound of Her Wings, and the subsequent longer storyline, The Doll’s House, where The Sandman really found its feet and came into its own. It’s The Doll’s House that shifts the focus, shifts away from the DC universe as a whole, and the supervillains, hero/villain battles and horror for horror’s sake quietly vanish from the comic, which instead begins to tell more “human” stories. It’s also where we start really seeing one of the main strength of the comic: The many varied, interesting, nuanced and loveable characters.

I already knew that the Netflix series would be a slightly looser adaptation of the comic than the very loyal Audible adaptation (which I still recommend, by the way!), so I was curious to see how they would handle Preludes and Nocturnes.

The answer? The story of the comic is actually more or less intact. We have the same story beats and events, but the presentation has altered a little. Almost all references to the DC universe has been purged, and what little is left there is mostly sly winks and nods. (On a practical level, this probably has more to do with rights and anything, but really… the series is better off for not having all those DC connections. They would have been more a distraction than anything.) The series also doesn’t lean anywhere NEAR as heavily on the horror tropes… oh, there’s plenty of horrific stuff here, but it’s not quite as extreme or bleak as the comic would sometimes get. There’s more levity and we get more of the colourful cast and nuanced characterization that would come to define the later Sandman stories right off the bat. Most notably (and to my delight), it means Matthew the Raven.

Matthew was always my fave character in the comic. He used to be a human, but he died while in a coma, and his spirit lives on in the Dreaming as a talking raven; Dream’s companion and messenger. In the comic he didn’t appear until the Doll’s House storyline, but the Netflix series wisely introduces him much sooner and has him act as Dream’s companion for much of the Preludes and Nocturnes storyline. Which means he adds some much-needed levity to the storyline, as well as provide the viewer with a character who is actually a decent and sympathetic person…. Dream at the time is still stuck in “not very nice” mode, and given that he ends up going to Hell and interacting with demons… it’s really nice to have the raven there to be a loyal companion and make the occasional funny quip in Patton Oswalt’s voice. 

Just like the comic, though, the show REALLY takes off when it’s done with Preludes and Nocturnes and goes into The Doll’s House territory. This happens halfway through the season, after Episode 5 which is probably the darkest and most disturbing the show gets (though not QUITE as dark and disturbing as the comic that issue was based on… I might make a more thorough comparison in a later blog post), we’re into the story of Rose Walker and her search for her younger brother Jed. Unbeknownst to her, Rose is a Dream Vortex, and the dreams and nightmares who are still free in the waking world tend to flock towards her…

There’s one very clear improvement on the comic here, and that’s Rose Walker herself. In the comic I didn’t like Rose. She was too mopey, too surly, too judgmental in a mean-spirited way. She had her sympathetic moments, sure, but I quickly got tired of her self-important and self-centered observations, as well as her tendency to angst… not to mention the fact that she was essentially a rather passive protagonist who was more pulled around by the plot than actually doing anything actively. The series gives us a less self-centered, more upbeat and above all more ACTIVE Rose. Unlike in the comic, she’s actually aware of what’s going on around her and actively involves herself in the story. Plus, she ends up actually having quite a bit of interaction with Dream… the two didn’t really speak that much in the comic, apart from at the end. Having Rose as a more involved party in her own story is a lot more satisfying. 

So that’s The Sandman. Or, should I say, that’s a very brief run-down of The Sandman, because this story is BIG. Even this first Netflix season, which only covers like a fraction of the overall story is really so big that I’d need  to write an entire book to cover it all. Just like the comic before it, this is a show where even the smallest of events and the most minor of characters have so much to them that they could easily have been the center of their own stories… in fact, it’s more than hinted that they all ARE the centre of their own stories, it’s just that we don’t get to see those stories play out in detail. It’s kind of like in The Neverending Story (the book, not the movie), where everyone and everything Bastian encounters have their own intricate stories that we only get to see a small part of, and the narrator just says “that’s another story, for another time.” 

I’ve seen a couple of reviews who complain at the lack of character focus, and how Dream isn’t the front and center of every episode… but those reviews are missing the point. Because even though Dream is the titular character of The Sandman, he’s not always meant to be the one in focus… the dreams themselves are. The dreams, the stories, and how they affect everyone’s lives. (Of course, there are a few purists and a few “I’m-not-racist-or-sexist-or-bigoted-but” racists, sexists and bigots who cry foul because Death is played by a black woman, or some characters have had their genders altered, or because Desire is non-binary… but those people are idiots and their complaints aren’t worth listening to.)   

As you can tell, I like this show. I like this show a LOT. But don’t I have anything negative to say? 

Well, aside from, a few minor nitpicks… and I realize that this is probably going to put me in the minority. but… I didn’t really care for the Corinthian. Don’t get me wrong, he’s a necessary part of these first two seasons, and I even appreciate that they gave him more involvement in the overall story rather than just being a rogue nightmare like in the comic, and there’s nothing wrong with how the actor plays him, but… out of all the characters the Corinthian is the only one who just… bores me a little? I get that he’s meant to be scary and seductive, but I’ll be honest: Come The Doll’s House, my attention started to waiver whenever the story went back to the Corinthian.  I don’t really know why… maybe it’s tied to how I’m sick of the Joker. There’s a similar “isn’t he scary, you never know what he’s going to do, nobody is safe” kind of overhype that I’ve started to find really tiresome. 

All in all, though, the show is a massive success. It certainly deserves more seasons, especially since the best Sandman stories are yet to come and I really want to see the Endless’s family dinner and the story with Dream ending up as the owner of Hell…

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