Thoughts on the Sandman TV adaptation

My guess is that The Sandman is the best comic yet created. I’ve been super excited to see it adapted to film or TV for a long time, and now a Netflix adaptation (of the beginning of the story) exists.

The adaptation is… OK?

There are a lot of fun things about it. And it really nails a few characters, and reinvents a few other characters in ways that make them more awesome and interesting than they were in the original comics. (Though overall I’d say there are more misses than hits on characterization, if we weight by importance.)

I don’t want to discourage people from watching the show (especially if this causes them to read the comics 😛), and I don’t want to say “your enjoyment was wrong!” to people who love the adaptation. I’ve been super delighted to hear people’s positive reviews of the show, and it always makes me happy to hear about which things people found fascinating or moving. I plan to continue watching it myself, and I’m excited to see what comes next. 🙂

But I do think there are several extremely core things about the comics that the Netflix adaptation misses on. So here’s my review of the Sandman TV series, and things I’d change:

(WARNING: The rest of this post will spoil important things about the comics that haven’t happened in the Netflix series yet. Don’t read this post unless you’ve read the Sandman comic series. You might also want to see the TV series before reading on?)

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SPOILERS BELOW

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I’d say there are three core problems with the Netflix series.

1. The series has no Morpheus.

To put it simply: The heart of the comic is Morpheus’ personality and character arc, and Tom Sturridge doesn’t feel like Morpheus, so the show fails.

In the source material, Morpheus’ typical vibe is quite alien, remote, closed off, cold, deliberate, robotic, elegant, precise. He’s a king, but he’s an emotionally dissociated, alien king, a low-key cosmic horror in his own right; and a lot of the comics’ key “glue” is built out of the tension between this aspect of Morpheus and his more human side.

In the Netflix series, Morpheus’ vibe reads to me more as “normal disaffected college-age person”.

Sturridge emotes the FUCK out of every scene. A typical scene will often have his eyes shimmering with tears. He’s a bit stiff, but he cries and laughs and looks shaken quite freely.

I think he sometimes tries to look distant and aloof, but the facial expression I read is somewhere between “vacant” and “trying-to-be-cool”. He looks… a bit like a Zoolander model doing duck-lips?

And this “make Morpheus more of an approachable everyman” is very obviously a conscious decision on the part of the showmakers! The story is systematically tweaked in ways that are aimed at humanizing Morpheus, giving him opportunities to express strong emotion (e.g., Jessamy), softening many of the points where he looks weird or evil (e.g., the curse on Alex Burgess), giving him a fast redemption arc in the cases where he does act like a dick (e.g., the events culminating in the season one finale). They want to make his emotional state more obvious and easier to sympathize with.

He feels like… some dude who runs the Dreaming, a guy you could easily be roommates with. Sure, he has magic powers, but we’re all used to normal relatable humans having superpowers in series like Doctor Who and The Avengers. Isn’t Sandman supposed to be a show like that?

(Spoiler warning for the rest of this review: It’s not supposed to be a show like that.)

The original Morpheus’ “resting state” is closed off and internal, with occasional breaks in the façade where deep feelings burst through. In contrast, Sturridge feels to me like he’s exerting active effort to hold himself upright and regal, like a young boy who’s just been granted an important responsibility. (Less alt-Morpheus, more alt-Daniel, maybe?)

Sturridge’s resting state is very human and emotional. To capture Morpheus’ essence, you want someone who can pull off “aloof” more naturally and convincingly, like a younger F Murray Abraham or Alan Rickman. Someone who can completely break down and shatter as a person when the plot calls for it, but who doesn’t parse as “your emo college roommate who has a bit of a chip on his shoulder”. Someone more dangerous, and more self-possessed, and with more depths.

In retrospect, I think the source character’s visual design (chalk-white, an explosion of wild black hair, hollow black eyes with glinting points of white) was actually doing a surprising amount of work in the comics. Especially the eyes.

To hit emotional beats at all similar to those in the comic, Morpheus needs to have that barrier to seeing how he’s feeling, a bit like trying to peer into the mind of a character wearing dark sunglasses. And there needs to be something very inhuman, uncanny, and otherworldly about Morpheus’ appearance. Missing that in the show, all on its own, takes away a lot of the distinctive personality of Morpheus.

If that specific look is hard to pull off visually in a live-action medium, then I’m totally fine with reimagining what Morpheus looks like (e.g., giving him dark sunglasses, or empty white eyes, or glowing blue eyes, or whatever). The point here isn’t source-fidelity for its own sake, IMO; it’s doing what’s necessary to tell a certain kind of story, regardless of how much that requires being unfaithful to superficial aspects of the comics.

2. Broadly speaking, the series opts for the same sort of vibes, tone, style, pacing, etc. as the Doctor Who revival.

(Especially obvious examples of this: Rose Walker’s new “Generic Determined Hopeful Person” personality, replacing her complicated old walled-off personality; everything about the Constantine episode, down to the special effects and cinematography.)

But most of the cool content and ideas of The Sandman don’t work in a world and story frame that feels like Doctor Who.

The first few issues of Sandman do have elements of “this is a comic about the adventures of Morpheus as he battles evil and fights crime” to them (though this is balanced by large doses of horror, surrealism, and artsiness that are mostly absent in the Netflix series).

But the rest of the comic series quickly moves away from this focus as Gaiman finds his feet and figures out the kind of story he wants to tell. The story instead evolves into some combination of “campfire stories that, in subtle or peripheral ways, advance the plot / develop the characters“, plus “grounded, unmagical, psychologically realistic slice-of-life storytelling that collides with magical-realism elements“.

Notably, neither of these aspects of The Sandman center Morpheus. Morpheus is neither the hero nor the person whose feelings/reactions/experiences are foregrounded. Rather, the heart of The Sandman is the human world, and the perspectives are human perspectives.

It’s a special treat to periodically run into Morpheus (often very briefly), and an even rarer treat to see past his mask to a true and deep display of emotion. Morpheus is the fascinating, mysterious alien whose puzzle-knot of a mind the comic gradually zeroes in on over thousands of pages; for Morpheus to be a normal sympathetic (albeit mildly aloof) MCU-style protagonist totally breaks the structure of the comics, which depend on him as a strange, complicated, mysterious, magnetic force whose hidden humanity is slowly revealed in stages.

Why is The Sandman compelling, given its really weird structure?

  1. Because the execution is amazing (the comics are just real well-written).
  2. Because the action is mostly centered on other characters who are easier to empathize with, keeping the whole comic from feeling as cold and rigid as Morpheus himself.
  3. Because keeping the focus off of Morpheus allows for a lot of variety and surprises issue-to-issue, and makes the unraveling of the puzzle-knot a slow and satisfying burn.
  4. And, crucially, because Morpheus doesn’t behave like an ordinary human being with standard emotions and Hollywood tropes of how-a-mostly-sympathetic-protagonist-is-supposed-to-behave.

If Morpheus does behave just like the other characters in the show, and just like the audience expects, then you lose the whole structure that makes the original story work.

3. The series doesn’t try to tell a totally new story, either.

In principle, 1 and 2 aren’t fatal, because there are cool new stories one might tell that are very loosely inspired by The Sandman, but don’t try to hit the same story beats and concepts that made the comic awesome. Instead, you can tell a story that’s awesome in very new ways.

But the TV show doesn’t actually try to do this. The series is just trying in a competent and workmanlike way to take a lot of cool dialogue and plot beats from the comic and turn them into a vaguely fun, watchable TV show. (Albeit with nonzero genuinely effective and clever surface-level ideas for adapting a fair number of specific plot points in new ways.)

But 1 and 2 make this a mostly doomed approach; the series either needed to nail the basic characterization and style that made the comic work, or it needed to set off in its own completely new direction.

(I guess there’s some hope that it might start boldly moving in a very new direction in future seasons, in ways I can’t currently anticipate, now that it’s had a successful first season? But I think I understand the values and mindset that produced the first season, and these don’t make me optimistic unless the creative team changes in some way.)

There are subtler issues with the series too, IMO.

4. Each scene feels very carefully crafted, optimized, almost focus-grouped.

(Gaiman has indeed mentioned that some scenes were cut because test audiences didn’t like them.)

Everything serves a purpose. Elements in the original that seem bizarre and “one damned thing after another” are replaced with elements that obviously and explicitly resonate with the show’s stated themes (dreams vs. reality, responsibility vs. freedom, etc.). Plot arcs always end on satisfying, uplifting notes, rather than deliberately hollow or dissonant ones. Everything has a very clear moral, and the moral always falls within the range of fairly standard morals you’ll see in any other popular mainstream TV show or movie.

The net effect is of a pretty standard, hand-holdy, predictable DoctorWho-ish fantasy/adventure drama, with occasional unusually-quirky or unusually-violent moments sprinkled in.

Notably, the net effect is not one of peering through a pinhole into what feels like a cohesive, lawful world.

In an actual world, things don’t always happen for reasons. There is real danger, and real unpredictability, exactly because the events aren’t all carefully curated and optimized to achieve standard storytelling goals at every level of granularity.

The Sandman comic is a story, but a lot of what makes the story arresting is its willingness to let Naked Reality creep in — to populate the world with elements that are deliberately never explored or resolved (because in the real world, things exist even if they aren’t plot-necessary and aren’t foreshadowing anything), with elements that are ugly and unpleasant, with elements that are raw and honest, with elements that violate the pattern and rhythm of the previous issue. And then somehow, out of this strangely real-feeling din, the long arc of a deeply satisfying story rises up from the depths, woven together from a thousand dissonant, weird, un-story-ish pieces.

(Which is doubly interesting given that The Sandman is in large part a story about storytelling! Maybe Gaiman on some level recognized that this kind of story gains its power from the interplay between messy non-stories and tidy author-optimized stories; that this is a way for it to keep its soul and humanity, and keep it from becoming one-note in spite of placing an extremely strong focus on a small number of unusually-abstract themes.)

There are reasons that the standard Hollywood/TV tropes are as they are. You really will lose some viewers if you stray from the Path. You’ll confuse people, upset people, make missteps (not just superficial missteps, but genuine deep artistic missteps ⁠— good art is genuinely risky, and failures will happen).

But while each local change can be justified on the basis of best storytelling practices, wanting to make a cool story intelligible and grabby to a wider audience, etc., the net effect of thousands of artistic decisions like this is a show that feels relatively flat, soulless, and over-polished.

If it were just hopeless to tell a story like that in TV or film (for reasons of medium, or because of problems with the industry’s incentives), then I’d be more resigned about all of this. But in fact, I think the right genre, tools, techniques, aesthetic, etc. is quite common in the industry today: it’s more or less the approach you see in artsy HBO dramas (think Carnivàle or Six Feet Under). Sandman just needs an approach that’s more like that, and less like Doctor Who or the MCU.

Beyond “the series feels too much like a Hollywood movie and not enough like a world”, there’s also:

5. The show lacks a sense of the cosmic, mysterious, ancient, and archetypal.

This is a harder point than the others to put into words, and I think it’s easy to overlook how important this is for making a bunch of the other things work. A lot of the power and poetry of the original comic relies on its use of established myths and patterns that feel somehow timeless and true; “more true than truth itself”, is how I might put it if I were Gaiman.

If I were to try to grope at what makes “archetypalness” important to The Sandman, it would maybe be:

  • Archetypes that feel old and “mysteriously true” create a point of tension with the real/modern/messy/human world. And this tension is shown and felt, not just told: both sides have serious emotional pull for the reader.
  • Archetypes are an easy way to create beauty, because (a) they contain a lot of pre-existing emotional content the author can draw on, and (b) drawing on cached concepts allows more complex and ensemble-y storytelling that avoids feeling cluttered or inelegant/forced. It’s one way to make the world feel like a large, coherent world (rather than a focus-grouped movie script), without resorting to mere realism or giant exposition dumps.

The “tension between the human and supernatural worlds” thing also connects up to the show’s decision to gender- and/or race-swap a lot of the cast.

Gender- and race-swapping is a great way to avoid making characters a rote rehash of the comics, and to see what new character dynamics and vibes fall out when you reroll the dice. (Plus it can help make a show/comic that’s nominally about Intergalactic Cosmic Beings feel less like it’s confined to a few neighborhoods in the US and UK.)

But the specific way the show does this is pretty weird. If the show-runners want the show to feel less white and male on the margin, it’s pretty easy to think of ways to do that (e.g., gender-swap Matthew, make the Endless all-West-African or all-Persian, etc.) that work well with the show’s themes, or even strengthen those themes. But many of the actual flips instead hollow out or undermine the themes.

On the whole, I don’t think this aspect of casting matters a ton. But it makes for an interesting case study in ‘losing sight of the basic tensions that the comic is built around’.

A central theme in the Sandman comic is that the Dreaming, the Endless, the gods, the Kindly Ones, etc. are all (with occasional exceptions, noteworthy exactly because they’re exceptions) forces of conservatism and non-humanism. Indeed, Morpheus’ arc (and the arc of many of the characters) is about overcoming this (or tragically failing to do so). The universe is a hostile place, governed by old Rules and Patterns that often echo humanity’s concepts, but rarely echo or push-in-favor-of humanity’s highest values and hopes for a better future.

Notably, this conservatism doesn’t have to be European in order to ring thematically true. You can model Lucien on a circa-1700 Chinese scholar-official, rather than a circa-1700 western-Europe librarian, and he’ll feel like an old archetype, and still be able to help build up a duality between the Dreaming’s old-fashioned rule-following and the waking world’s beautiful diversity and aliveness.

(I think it actually would have been cool to build the entire Dreaming around, e.g., old Chinese aristocratic tropes. Choosing a single overarching visual language can reinforce the traditionalism of these places and institutions.)

If you want the Dreaming to serve as a (complicated, slowly-starting-to-change-and-evolve) foil to the waking world’s aliveness and modernity and freedom, the one archetype you can’t lean into for characters like Lucien is a really new and refreshing archetype like Exciting Hip Culture-Straddling Person Who Looks Like A Denizen Of A Badass Timehopping Shadowrun Campaign.

If you want to nail the core conflict in the original comics, you can’t make Lucien a rebellious exciting fresh new counterpoint to Morpheus — especially not one whose vibe matches a just-starting-to-become-popular-in-the-21st-century new media archetype like Strong Female Queer-Fashion-Icon Supporting Character With Attitude.

Thematically, you can very much do that for the new kid in town, Matthew. For similar reasons, gender-swapping Constantine and race-swapping Rose, Jed, and Unity seems actively good to me, since (to my eye) it makes those characters feel less like standard Anglophone storytelling tropes.

(If Constantine feels too traditionally noir and rugged-protagonist-y, he’ll undermine the distinction between Archetypal Dreams and Messy, Decidedly Non-Archetypal Humans.)

The progressive, queer, humanistic, etc. stuff mostly goes in the human world. If you lean into this for the old, important, influential non-humans we meet early in the series, you’re liable to make the Dreaming feel like a vibrant cosmopolitan futurist utopia, as opposed to the complicated, disturbing, antiquated, foggy, nightmare-y castle-and-grounds it is in the source material.

Compare the voice-over that introduces the Dreaming in the Netflix adaptation (“When the waking world leaves you wanting, and weary, sleep brings you here — to find freedom and adventure!”) to its introduction in the comics:

If you go the route of making the Dreaming just another cool wonder-inspiring gee-whiz fantasy setting, like you might see in movie-Narnia or Doctor Who or the MCU, then you do get to open the TV series with an exciting hopeful fantasy-paradise CGI sequence.

The standard Hollywood visual language is popular for a reason!

But if you make a habit of making things normal/standardized in this way, and you don’t have an offsetting habit of making other things more weird than they were in the source material, you end up with just another fantasy/superhero TV show, a minor variation on the established theme.

Death is deliberately written as an exception to the “non-humans are old and stodgy and rule-bound” rule, and you can add other exceptions if you want — especially if they show up a lot later in the story, or if they’re new kids on the block like Matthew. But if you pile on more and more exceptions to the rule from the very start, then the rule just doesn’t exist and the non-human world turns into “just more world”. (Albeit with more neat CGI than the human world.)

For some quick thoughts on how I might have started a series like this if I were King Of Sandman Adaptations, see this Google Doc.

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