We Have Thoughts. Many, Many Thoughts.
Holy crap, they actually filmed The Sandman.
Neil Gaiman’s sprawling comic book epic—created by Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mark Dringenberg, written by Gaiman, and illustrated by a revolving door of artists—has long been considered unfilmable because of all the failed attempts at filming it. The story was simply too massive, too expensive, too odd, too idiosyncratic to ever make it to the screen, despite its immense popularity.
But holy crap, they actually filmed The Sandman.
With a creative team led by Allan Heinberg, with David Goyer and Gaiman himself also playing large roles, the first two volumes of Sandman, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House,” have been faithfully brought to life.
There’s a Sandman TV show! It’s on Netflix! You can just…like…watch it!
The Sandman is the story of Dream of the Endless. The Endless are the gods that other gods bow to, consisting of Destiny, Death, Dream, the twins Desire and Despair, and Delirium (the line-up is actually a little more complicated than that, but let’s stick with the basics). At the outset of the series, Dream (Tom Sturridge) is captured by humans who are trying to bind his sister, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). The humans keep Dream locked away for over a century, but he eventually escapes and, after a quick layover to extract grim vengeance, sets about restoring his shattered kingdom and tracking down the various nightmares and dreams that went missing during his absence.
The Netflix show follows the comics quite closely, but there are, of course, changes that get made from one medium to the next. So today, let’s talk about some of the places where the show splits off from the comic text, and what those changes might mean for future stories.
(I could say that this is meant to be a guided tour for people who haven’t read the comic but honestly I don’t really care about you guys; I’m writing this because JESUS TAPDANCING CHRIST THEY ACTUALLY FILMED SANDMAN and I need to vent this energy somewhere.)
This series will be discuss the Netflix show in full, but I’ll be as vague as possible in discussing future stories in the comic. I will also note here that I’ll be referring to the main character interchangeably as both “Dream” and “Morpheus”. Dude’s got a lot of names.
The Brothers Burgess
The Comic: Self-styled “magus” Roderick Burgess captures Dream because he’s an evil old man who wants to conquer death and gain unlimited power, as evil old men are wont to do. After his death, Roderick’s mistreated son, Alex, presides over Dream’s captivity and torment for the remainder of his own life. When Dream finally escapes, he condemns Alex to “eternal waking,” trapping him in an endless sequence of nightmares in which Alex experiences false awakening after false awakening forever.
The Change: The show adds the backstory that there was another Burgess son: Roderick’s beloved eldest son and heir died in World War I, and it’s out of desperation to bring him back that Roderick (Charles Dance) undertakes his failed bid to harness death. His grief festers into resentment for his surviving son, Alex (played by Benjamin Evan Ainsworth, Laurie Kynaston, and Benedick Blythe), who is significantly more sympathetic in this iteration. Whereas comic-Alex was every bit as power-hungry as his father, show-Alex only continues Dream’s imprisonment because Dream won’t promise not to retaliate against Alex and his loved ones. (It’s not the worst rationale for keeping an angry god under lock and key.) This time, Dream sentences Alex to eternal sleep, not waking. Alex remains trapped in perpetual slumber, but it’s a pointedly less gruesome fate than in the comics.
What It Means Going Forward: Dream’s punishment of Alex is a reader’s first indication of just how cruel and, frankly, terrifying Morpheus can be when he is displeased. The show pulling that punch is likewise an early indication, this time communicating that live-action Dream has a softer touch than he did on the page.
Spending more time with and getting a more nuanced perspective on the Burgesses (including another new son we’ll discuss in a moment) demonstrates what adapting, updating, and changing mediums can add to a story. The Sandman is a denser comic than most, but it’s still a comic book, and Gaiman often drew (not literally) in broad strokes in order to keep the story moving within the confines and limitations of the comic format. The show takes the liberty of its own format to sprawl out a bit, and take its time getting to know the characters a bit more before the mystic starts intruding.
Brute & Glob
The Comic: Two runaway nightmares determined to create their own kingdom during Dream’s long absence, Brute and Glob set up shop inside the imagination of abused child Jed Walker, cutting him off from the main Dreaming. Inside this private dreamscape, Brute and Glob also corral the soul of dead superhero Hector Hall and his (living) pregnant wife Lyta, convincing Hector that he is the Sandman and has a perpetual mission of battling nightmares to protect children across the world. When Morpheus learns of what they’ve done, he promptly dismantles Brute and Glob’s operation and condemns the two to “The Darkness.” We never really get a full picture of exactly what “The Darkness” is, but all the screaming suggests that no one’s happy to go there.
The Change: Brute and Glob are gone entirely, and in their place is a new character, Gault (Ann Ogbomo). Like her comic counterparts, Gault is a nightmare hiding within the imagination of Jed Walker (Eddie Karanja) after separating him from the main Dreaming. A shapeshifter, Gault takes the form of Jed’s mother and convinces Jed that he is a superhero called the Sandman. As in the comics, a displeased Morpheus eventually arrives and puts an end to the whole charade.
But in a fairly devastating deviation from the comic, Gault reveals that unlike Brute and Glob, she had no malicious motivations behind her actions: She’s just a nightmare who stumbled across a horribly abused boy and wanted to give the kid a chance at happiness, even if just in dreams, and live out her own longing to be something more.
A nonplussed Morpheus condemns her to the Darkness anyway. But not really. Instead in the season’s final moments, he not only frees Gault from her imprisonment, he even fulfills her wish and transforms her into a dream.
What It Means Going Forward: Sandman is fundamentally a story about change and transformation. It’s about how individuals, be they people, gods, or worlds, constantly change even as real people, God(s), and the world, never really change. Gault is a walking, talking manifestation of that theme. Heck, as far as metaphors go, a nightmare longing to become a dream could only be more on the nose if she emerged from a cocoon flapping butterfly wings— OH WAIT THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT HAPPENS.
Regardless! As mentioned previously, show-Morpheus is a significantly softer, more humane character than he was on the page, with his damnation of a defiant Gault serving as one of the only moments in the show where we get a taste of just how heartless the Dream King can be. It also recalls and anticipates his doomed relationship with Nada, teased early in the season, another instance of Morpheus banishing a Black woman to eternal suffering because shev dared defy him.
Which is what makes Dream sparing Gault in the closing minutes of the season such an odd choice. A Dream who can readily admit his mistakes and quickly address them is a very different creature from the proud, temperamental king who causes so much havoc over the life of The Sandman with his unwillingness to accept fault.
The Comic: Streetwise occultist John Constantine helps Morpheus locate the Dream King’s lost bag of sand, which fell into John’s possession before being taken by one of his old girlfriends, who becomes addicted to the sands with some gruesome, lethal results. Dream reclaims his sands, and the two go their separate ways. It’d be a stretch to call them “friends” at this point, but it’s altogether a rather genial dynamic between the pair.
The Change: Streetwise occultist Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman) is pointedly unimpressed by Morpheus and spends most of their time together dressing down that Edward Cullen-looking motherfucker and all his ludicrous pomposity. Whereas Gaiman tends to write Constantine (in both Sandman and his Books of Magic miniseries) as being much more affable and easygoing, the show’s Johanna Constantine is ruthless, destructive, and self-loathing in a way that brings her much closer in line to the character Alan Moore created, even with the gender swap.
The show also downplays the body-horror of what Dream and Constantine find in Jo’s ex-girlfriend’s apartment, instead focusing on the heartbreak and guilt that Constantine feels over what she inadvertently caused to happen to a woman she once loved.
What It Means Going Forward: John Constantine never again plays any significant role in Sandman, though his ancestor Lady Johanna Constantine (also Coleman) returns and plays a major role in one of the comic’s best, most disturbing, and most important stories, in which Morpheus charges her with retrieving something of great value to him from the ravages of the French Revolution.
So we’ll see historical Johanna Constantine again, but what about contemporary Jo? Coleman’s chemistry with Sturridge is so interesting and distinct from his interplay with the rest of the ensemble that it seems a downright waste to never again bring them together. Certainly if the show wanted to bring Constantine back, the opportunities are there. If all hell is literally breaking loose next season when they (presumably) adapt “Season of Mist,” then it would make sense to have Joanna be our point-of-view character for the consequences on Earth, given that she’s already plugged into such affairs. And if the show gets to “Brief Lives,” then it would make sense that Dream would go to Johanna and take advantage of her investigative skills for the search he and his sibling are engaged in.
The show could even—and now we’re in total conjecture land—but the show could even slide magic-user Johanna Constantine into the role occupied by the witch Thessaly in the “Game of You” and “Kindly Ones” stories. Which would be downright goddamn devastating, but also excellent television.
The Comic: The most fearsome of the runaway nightmares who abandoned the Dreaming after Morpheus disappeared, the Corinthian spends the intervening century living it up in the waking world as a serial killer. Blithely unaware of Dream’s freedom, he only learns of his former master’s return when Dream materializes at a serial killer convention (like Comic-Con for murderers) at which the Corinthian is the guest of honor. Thoroughly unimpressed by how the Corinthian has spent his time away, Dream unmakes him on the spot, leaving behind only his skull. Dream pockets the skull, vowing to make the Corinthian again someday; like all writers, Morpheus is convinced that this next draft is the one where he will get it right.
The Change: The Corinthian’s (Boyd Holbrook) role has been expanded until he essentially functions as the Big Bad of the season. He’s the reason Dream goes into the waking world and is thus susceptible to Burgess’s spell. He’s the primary architect of Dream’s imprisonment and, after Dream escapes, he schemes to sic first John Dee (David Thewlis) and then Rose Walker (Kyo Ra) on Morpheus in the hopes that they will disrupt the Dreaming and/or destroy its vengeful king. He even attempts to weaponize the collective dreams of the serial killer convention in order to bring Morpheus to his knees. His efforts come to naught and, as in the comics, Dream eventually corners and destroys his disappointing creation.
What It Means Going Forward: Dream does eventually get around to making a new Corinthian, and this very different, if equally bloodthirsty, version plays a minor but important role in the mayhem of “The Kindly Ones.” If Holbrook is available and interested, it would certainly be possible for that to get pushed up and for a version of the Corinthian to appear again in some capacity.
What’s really significant about the expansion of the Corinthian’s role is less the Corinthian himself, since he ends up at the same place albeit in a more roundabout fashion; instead, the Corinthian’s arc throughout this season demonstrates the first effort at combining elements from multiple arcs. This mixing-and-matching will continue to be necessary, as Gaiman’s sprawling stories do not cleanly chart onto seasonal TV structures. The merging of “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House” into one season is not always gracefully handled, but the expansion of the Corinthian’s role was a smart tactic and it makes me curious as to how this creative team will play with the comics going forward.