SERIES REVIEW – Neil Gaiman’s classic comic book series is being adapted into a drama series starring Tom Sturridge as the Prince of Dreams, who finds himself trapped in the human world for a century.
At one point in Sandman, a 400-year-old Englishman (Ferdinand Kingsley) loosely eviscerates a recent performance of King Lear. “The idiots gave it a happy ending,” he scoffs. His interlocutor, Dream (Tom Sturridge), as the physical manifestation of the concept of dream and master of the impossible realm to which we travel when we fall asleep, is less than thrilled about it. “This won’t last long,” he predicts sagely. “Great stories always return to their original form.”
It plays It Too Safe
The Sandman won’t need such a dramatic comeback. Comic book creator Neil Gaiman himself (alongside Allan Heinberg and David S. Goyer) is the executive producer, and the fantasy drama has respect for its source material as a result. However, what is missing from the dialogue about King Lear is precisely the creative risk-taking that really punchy adaptations dare to take, making them feel fresh and relevant. By putting fidelity before creativity, Sandman is a fair and high-quality adaptation of the comics – but it falls far short of being a classic in its own right.
As in the comics, Netflix’s Sandman begins with a prison sentence. Though Dream – like his other Infinite siblings, including Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Desire (Mason Alexander Park) and Despair (Donna Preston) – possesses powers that the gods can barely comprehend, it is ultimately a human magician, Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), who casts a spell powerful enough to keep Dream imprisoned among the living for more than a century. (If you’re trying to decipher which sagas explain Dream’s strengths and weaknesses or why some spells work better on him than others, don’t bother; this is the kind of fantasy series that leaves the explanation to the wind with a wave of the hand, even calling imminent threats to reality “incomprehensible.”)
This Dream got a little too sleepy
When Dream is finally released from his prison in 2022, he rushes back to his kingdom to discover that it has been ruined in his absence, despite the best efforts of his deputy Lucienne (the appealingly astute Vivienne Acheampong), and that several of his subjects have fled. The first season, which revisits the first two of the ten volumes in the original series, published between 1989 and 1996, follows Dream as he works to regain his power, reassert his authority, rebuild his world – and perhaps, in the process, to gain a deeper understanding of the human lives he claims to serve.
Undoubtedly, one of the biggest challenges of adapting Sandman will be the Dream itself. As portrayed in the comics, he is essentially a grown man’s figure, but with an ethereal alien posture, bone china skin and glittering stars where his eyes should be. It’s not an easy task for a mortal in the flesh, and Sturridge makes a great effort when he plays the graceful, aristocratic build and deep, quiet baritone voice of Dream. Yet somehow, the 36-year-old British actor remains all too human, and it’s not helped by his make-up, which the make-up artists have worked too hard to distinguish him from any emo-style goth guy in his 30s living in modern-day London. This, in turn, undermines the sense of isolation our hero experiences when he’s around people, which was an essential part of the original comic.
Nightmare on Netflix, female Constantine and a cool Death
Much more lifelike is Boyd Holbrook from another Netflix hit series, Narcos, as Corinthian, an escaped Nightmare who serial killers adore. The character’s most creepy physical feature is that he has a sharp-toothed mouth instead of eyes, but Nightmare usually hides them under dark sunglasses; Holbrook still manages to make his performance a strangely seductive menace in its own right.
Also worthy of note is the performance of Jenna Coleman, who does so well in her brief appearance as troubled baddie Johanna Constantine. For those of you familiar with the name, yes, it’s the exorcist female version of John Constantine from the books, the NBC series and the Keanu Reeves film. And Howell-Baptiste is perhaps the most winning character in the series as the warm-hearted and pragmatic Death. Can we expect a Constatine-spinoff?
Loyalty to the fans above all else?
The Sandman suffers from a disease a bit like the other Netflix adaptation, Cowboy Bepop, which also didn’t dare to deviate much from the original source material. The story starts with Roderick Burgess, not because he’s so terribly interesting as a character, but apparently just because the comics start with him and the storyline that goes with him. When the Burgess events finally come to a close, the series gets more exciting, but it’s still too attached to the original source material.
Fans of the original comics will love Sandman: Prince of Dreams the most; those unfamiliar with this universe will find the story and the characters’ motivations often confusing. This is compensated by the overall good acting and the unique visual world. Sandman is recommended for those who want a truly unique and special series and are not bothered by obscure story elements. However, let’s not forget that there is a lot of competition in this genre on Netflix and elsewhere…