Rating: 5 out of 5 stars. Despite the huge amount of source material, and the weighty concepts within, The Sandman pulls in newcomers and fans alike into the magical realism of the Endless and the trials and tribulations of Morphius, Lord of Dreams. The narrative twists and turns, but all comes together in the end and sets up exciting future installments.

The Sandman by Neil Gaiman is one of the very first works I read that really cemented for me that comics were literature. Despite being loosely attached to the DC comic universe, The Sandman is firmly rooted in our own reality most of the time. Touching on topics of love, loss, death, life, stories, and what it means to be human, The Sandman graphic novels present a supernatural reality just adjacent to our own that is at once too fantastical to be real yet so familiar that it must be.

There have been rumblings of an adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s seminal work for a decade or more. The original run was a huge hit when it was published (beginning in 1989), and as movies based on comics became more of a hit at the box office, it was only natural that many would seek to adapt it. Gaiman has been understandably protective of his most iconic work and resisted many attempts to dumb down, severely alter, or make an adaptation more palatable for ‘wider audiences’. So, I was both trepidatious and excited to learn that Neil Gaiman had given the go-ahead on a show adaptation for Netflix.

With only the briefest trickle of information regarding casting, as well as what the show would encompass, I waited for the release of The Sandman. The more I saw, the more hype I became, and the more I worried. I remember seeing teasers for other comic book properties and getting excited by what I saw, only to be disappointed as those brief glimpses in the trailers were the only thing approaching proper adaptation in the entire work.

Finally the time came, I was so excited I stayed up until 2am to watch it as soon as it would become available in my time zone. From the intro to the end of the first episode I was enthralled. While I thought I knew exactly how it would play out, I found myself enraptured as the narrative unfolded in a new and exciting way. Changes to the original streamlining the narrative and enhancing themes that were only enhancements because we had to watch it without the narrative context you can pack into a written work. I kept waiting to be disappointed, a disappointment that never came. That negative attitude actually kept me from fully appreciating many of the changes, and as soon as I had finished the ten-episode run I found myself watching it again immediately.

While it would be difficult to summarize what The Sandman is about, it starts with a man named Roderick Burgess (played impeccably by Charles Dance), a self-proclaimed ‘Magus’ who seeks to imprison Death and demand the return of his dead son. Instead, he imprisons Dream (played hauntingly by Tom Sturridge), the personification of all dreaming, beginning a chain of events that set the stage for the tale. After a century of imprisonment, Dream finally escapes, and his first order of business is to reclaim his lost vestments, aspects of his power that are essential to his function as the ruler of the Dreamlands. This is about as ‘simple’ as the story of Morpheus gets, three items lost, each held by different entities, with varying effects on their owners and the worlds that surround them.

While I would say the function of this quest in the original is lore-building, giving us glimpses into the various realms and rules in this world of Dreams, as well as some small nods to the wider DC universe, the show uses his quest to give some better scaffolding to the quest. Establishing richer motivations and backstory for minor characters as well as giving us great examples of how Dream interacts with humans, and the effects his imprisonment has had on his view of humanity. Considering what I knew came next, I found it created greater narrative throughline for Dream’s growth and his story overall.

SPOILER WARNING.

While I could go in depth on every aspect of this story, what it means to me, I know that for many the thing most are curious about are the exact changes to the source material. I won’t go into all of them, but I will touch on the major ones. Each of these changes, I feel, creates a stronger cohesive narrative. The first, and the biggest, as it connects the entire show together, is the role of The Corinthian, played amazingly by Boyd Holbrook.

In the comics, The Corinthian is simply a stray nightmare, who has created a cult of murder and death and must be corralled and returned the Dreaming. While this is still true in the show, the desire to spread death and terror in the waking world is a core desire of The Corinthian, and something he was doing at the time of Dream’s imprisonment. When his ‘execution’ is cut short by Dream’s capture, he seeks out Roderick Burgess and teaches him how to contain Dream completely, to stave off his judgement. This is a motivation that drives him throughout the show.

The next major story beat that is changed regards Lyta Hall. While Lyta Hall is not a major player in the show this season, the things that happen to her during the “Doll’s House” arc set up major events in the future of Dream. Things that are crucial to the story that Gaiman told long ago. In the comics, she is caught up in two escaped nightmares’ attempts to create a separate Dreamworld that they can control. They do this by hiding in the dreams of Jed Walker, ensnaring the ghost of Lyta’s husband Hector and setting him up as an alternative ‘Sandman’. Hector Hall is an established character in the DC comic pantheon, and his stint as ‘The Sandman’ of Jed’s dreams is part of his story. As the show has removed as much of DC’s main comic world as it can, this is a change that makes a lot of sense. Hector instead simply haunts his wife, unable to pass on due to his love. The threat to the Dreamworld in both comic and show regard the dreamworld impacting and destroying the waking one. Lyta’s impregnation by her dead husband in a world of dreams is kept as simply another side effect of the reality-warping events of the show.

While not a changed story beat, one of the most iconic sequences of The Sandman‘s run regards the 24-hour diner. This story is where Dream retrieves the last of his artifacts, the ruby that can make dreams come true. It is a haunting story, with a lot of disturbing imagery as well as some cynical views on the nature of humanity. The show gives pathos to the character of John Dee, who in the comics is insane and wishes to be king of the world. The scenes regarding John Dee’s mother, as well as his reason for using the ruby the way he does not only make his character far more interesting in my opinion, but also tie into how Dream views humanity and the repercussions of that viewpoint.

John’s obsession with the ‘true’ face of humanity lends the things he does in the diner some reason behind what are just John’s ‘playtime’ in the comics. While the show does tone down the more extreme parts of the scene as well as shorten it, this serves to better focus the themes on Dream rather than the set piece of the diner. While the comic nerd in me would have liked to see it in its fullness (there is a rather good fan adaptation I saw on YouTube a while back if you can find it), I have to admit that this version suits the show perfectly.

The last one is one of my favorites. The possessor of Dream’s helm in the comics is a Lord of Hell, a demon who got it by trading it for an amulet of protection (which is given new purpose in the show as well, to great effect). In the comic, Dream challenges the demon to a game for it, in which he quickly surmises the demon’s ‘style’ and is able to outwit him. It ends in a confrontation despite his victory, and he leaves. His victory is painted as an insult to the ruler of Hell, Lucifer Morningstar (Gwendoline Christie) who vows revenge. The change in the show is that rather than challenging some demon, Dream goes up against Lucifer themself. This cements their victory as even more of an ‘insult’ and I think sets up Lucifer’s desire for revenge even more powerfully than the comic.

I know I’ve waxed poetic on the many virtues of this adaptation, and it’s quite long, but just as the source material is dense, and defies simplification, so too does talking about it. The show is everything I could have hoped for and more, and I am excited to see the rest of the story unfold throughout future seasons. If you are a fan of the comic, I can wholeheartedly recommend this faithful adaptation, and for newcomers this story will likely enthrall you as it has me.

The real brilliance is that any questions you have after watching the show are answered by going back to the source material and seeing the full breadth of the world Gaiman has revealed in all its glory. I can only think of how Douglas Adams would try to make each adaptation of his work unique to the medium, and I can only surmise that Gaiman has taken a similar approach. So my final word is, go watch The Sandman, and enter the world of Dreams and enjoy.

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