Beloved writer Neil Gaiman’s acclaimed graphic novel The Sandman is a complex and rich world of darkness, dreams and unrealised desires. The term graphic novel seems to sit well with what Neil brings to the readers in its original 75 issues. Layered with themes of adultery, rape, abuse and addiction, The Sandman is graphic, alright. But its world is so fantastical and seemingly out of reach that it seems impossible to translate those pages to any format of film.
No wonder then, that it has taken The Sandman over 30 years to come to life. Those of us, who have consumed Gaiman’s piece of singular brilliance in audio or book form, had only dreamed (pun intended) about this day. But thank heavens, streaming giant Netflix took charge so that we today can see the beauty of Gaiman’s words in live-action. For the uninitiated, all you need to know is that this is a fantastical realm created by an author loved across all ages globally. The story is about the King of Dreams, Lord Morpheus, aka The Sandman, who is on a quest of some sort after escaping his captors in the waking world post a century.
The illustrations and drawings by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg, Jill Thompson, Shawn McManus, Marc Hempel, Bryan Talbot, and Michael Zulli are perfectly recreated by David Goyer and Allan Heinberg. It also helps matters greatly that Neil himself is involved deeply in the process, right from the scripting stage to approving talent for portraying the parts he so lovingly created. Some of the visuals from the series are straight up replicas from The Sandman Volume I, such as when Morpheus is captured by an amateur magus, or when The Sandman finally escapes into the light after 100 years of captivity. The cinematography by the trio of Will Baldy, George Steel and Sam Heasman is exquisite. You gasp and marvel at the wonders on screen, an experience akin to consuming a book through all your senses. Those of you who have often eagerly awaited a film or show adaptation of your favourite novel, know that this kind of transformation from the pages to screen happens rarely, if at all.
The makers have made sure that even those unfamiliar with the works of Gaiman at large, will be forced to sit up and take notice of what is unravelling before them. The magnetic combination of a strong narrative, talented actors, some great visual effects and production design takes care of that wonderfully. The attention to the detail, right from the costumes to the fashion in which the worlds of dream and hell are birthed is spellbinding. The lord of hell, Lucifer Morningstar, is played by Game of Thrones actor Gwendolen Christie, who is quietly ominous as the havoc wrecker. You fear her even when she smiles. Then there is Patton Oswalt playing the raven Matthew, Jenna Coleman as Johanna Constantine, Stephen Fry as a dream form called Gilbert, the superb David Thewlis as the unhinged John Dee, Sanjeev Bhaskar as Cain and Asim Chaudhary as Abel to name a few. But the two stars who steal the limelight in this pilot season are Boyd Holbrook, who plays the diabolical Corinthian, who has a set of teeth for eyes, and they really won a lottery with casting the main lead. Because British actor Tom Sturridge, not very well known outside the UK, is magnificent as The Sandman.
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Tom wears the straight-faced, dry humour and the underlying melancholy of the titular hero as a second skin. The lone figure who looks like it will cost him a fortune to smile, but at the same time manages to attract and awe you is a tall order for anyone to play. However, Tom’s lithe, wiry figure draped in that all-black costume, walking the land of Dreaming as its moody, broody king is what one would have imagined Morpheus to be. Tom as Sandman seems modern and ancient all at once, and that bodes well for the character. Because Morpheus is almost as old as the universe we inhabit and to keep things in order, he has to be updated with what goes on in the waking world at all times. That weight of responsibility and knowledge is pulled off with finesse by Tom Sturridge.
There is gore, there is violence, there is sadness and there is hope buried underneath all that, all the time bubbling and eager to swim to the surface. That is Sandman the graphic novel, and that is the essence retained by the creators in The Sandman Season 1, the Netflix series.
The Sandman is currently streaming on Netflix.