A master class in adapting a beloved graphic novel series.

review: netflix’s exquisite the sandman is the stuff dreams are made of

/ Neil Gaiman’s classic “unfilmable” graphic novel series gets the adaptation he always wanted.Netflix

Like many nerds of a certain age, I have long adored Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novel series; it was an enormous influence on my younger self. So I was thrilled to hear of Netflix’s planned adaptation when it was announced in 2019—but I also experienced some trepidation given the past misguided efforts to bring the story to the screen. That trepidation was unwarranted because The Sandman is a triumph. It’s everything I had hoped to see in an adaption, and it has been well worth the wait.

(Warning: Some spoilers for the original graphic novels and the Netflix series below.)

The titular “sandman” is Dream, but he is also called Morpheus, among other names. He is one of seven entities known as the Endless. (The other Endless are Destiny, Destruction, Despair, Desire, Delirium, and Death.) Gaiman’s 75-issue revival of the DC character is an odd mix of mythology, fantasy, horror, and history, rife with literary references and a fair bit of dark humor. There really is nothing quite like it, and the series proved to be hugely popular and enduring. One standalone story, “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (The Sandman No. 19) even won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Fiction, the only time a comic has been so honored.

The first season is largely based on the events depicted in Preludes and Nocturnes and A Doll’s House, with some additional elements drawn from or referencing later material. We open with Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) leaving the Dreaming to bring back a prodigal nightmare called the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). Before he can do so, he is captured by an occult ritual performed by an occultist named Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), who sought to capture Death to bring back his son, who died in World War I. Dream refuses to yield to his demands, and while the aristocrat’s son, Alex (Laurie Kynaston), initially considers freeing Morpheus, he eventually becomes his father’s accomplice.

Dream is imprisoned for 106 years, finally breaking free in 2021. But the Dreaming has gone to ruin in his absence, and his totems of power—his helm, his pouch of sand, and his ruby—were stolen. He must recover the totems and begin to restore the Dreaming, which includes tracking down the Corinthian and other escaped dreams and nightmares. He must also deal with the emergence of a Vortex—a human with the ability to walk through the dreams of others, weakening the barrier between the waking world and the Dreaming and capable of destroying them entirely.

Tom Sturridge as Morpheus, aka Dream of the Endless, who rules the Dreaming. Netflix

Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance), an occultist who imprisons Dream, and his son Alex (Benjamin Evan Ainsworth). Netflix

Dream refuses to speak, much less give Sir Roderick what he wants. Netflix

An older Alex (Laurie Kynaston) and Ethel Cripps (Niamh Walsh), Sir Roderick’s mistress and future mother of John Dee. Netflix

Dream’s sister Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste) finds meaning in her purpose. Netflix

Endless twins Despair (Donna Preston) and Desire (Mason Alexander Park) plot against Morpheus. Netflix

Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), librarian of the Dreaming. Netflix

Dream and his trusty raven Matthew (Patton Oswalt). Netflix

Mark Hamill voices Mervyn Pumpkinhead, janitor in the Dreaming. Netflix

Cain (Sanjeev Bhaskar) can’t help compulsively murdering his brother Abel (Asim Chaudhry) Netflix

A baby gargoyle named Goldie. Netflix

The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) is an escaped nightmare turned serial killer in the waking world. Netflix

Another escaped nightmare, Gault (Ann Ogbomo), longs to bring comfort instead of fear. Netflix

Gilbert (Stephen Fry), aka Fiddler’s Green of the Dreaming. Netflix

Fate Motherr (Nina Wadia), Fate Maiden (Dinita Gohil), and Fate Crone (Souad Faress). You wouldn’t want to meet them as the Kindly Ones. Netflix

There is so much to love about this adaptation, but let’s start with the brilliant casting, featuring major names like Dance, David Thewlis (John Dee), Stephen Fry (Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green), Patton Oswalt (voicing the raven Matthew), Mark Hamill (voicing Mervyn Pumpkinhead), and Derek Jacobi (Erasmus Fry). With his lean build, razor-sharp cheekbones, and deep voice, Tom Sturridge makes a compelling Morpheus, even when Dream is being overly proud or petty or downright cruel early on—flaws that are central to the personal growth of the character over the course of the story. He’s not just a pretty emo-boy, and that’s very much due to Sturridge’s performance.


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