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  • Writer's pictureLinda Thackeray

Review - The Sandman (Netflix)

Minor Spoilers

In my life, there have only ever been three authors whose work influenced me enough to define what kind of writer I wished to be - Stephen King, Frank Herbert, and Neil Gaiman. For full disclosure, I am a big fan of Gaiman. I’ve read almost everything he’s written since a friend pressed Issue #14 of The Sandman into my hands. While I loved comics, I had read nothing like the Collectors, and I devoured its pages as ferociously as the appetites of the conventioners in the book.

After that, I went back and found every back issue I could find, and they’re still with me, wrapped in plastic, taken out to be read because I could give a fig about devaluing them. Books should be read, and that’s all there is to it.

Fast forward through the decades. I’d heard the rumblings of The Sandman making the jump to movies and/or television. I stayed mildly interested because I never thought they could do it justice, and after hearing some nonsense about giant robotic spiders being a factor in the plot, I decided I was not wrong.

Thus, after years of languishing in development hell, the live-action debut of The Sandman is upon us, and to the relief of longtime fans, it’s helmed by none other than its creator.

I won’t lie. Once I started watching, I couldn’t stop. It was that good.

Now, I went into the show with the expectation it wouldn’t be a panel for panel re-creation of the comics. With ten episodes covering the first two story arcs (Preludes and Nocturnes & The Dollhouse), it couldn’t be. What we received was a leaner, streamlined narrative that allowed novices to come on board with no prior knowledge but does not diminish the story for fans. Important elements remain and are adapted faithfully from the source and, sometimes, expanded. I like the larger role Ethel Cripps plays in the series and John Dee’s connection to Roderick Burgess. In terms of story flow, it worked better and allowed Gaiman to avoid copyright issues with characters that don’t add that much value to the overall story.

A similar change took place with Johanna Constantine. I didn't dislike the gender-swapping that took place in this instance, but it was the characterization that bothered me. I need to reread my Hellblazer comics to remind me if John Constantine was this much of a mercenary. Nevertheless, Jenna Coleman did a decent job.

As its creator, Gaiman isn’t afraid to break our hearts either. We’re introduced to a beloved character only to lose him a short time later, and though Jessamy barely appears in the comics, the fate of this raven was heartbreaking.

Still, a death I always despised in the original comic doesn’t happen. Some may decry the change, but I found it humanized John Dee, showing he’s not an evil man but rather a broken one. Even following his actions in Episode 5 (24/7), where the horror plays on our senses like a piece of music reaching crescendo, I couldn’t help but view John with sadness. David Thewlis’s nuanced performance, next to Tom Sturridge, could be the finest in the entire series.

Thanks to Fox’s Lucifer, some compromises had to be made in how Lucifer appears in The Sandman. While not as gruesome as the comics, the Hell occupied by Gwendoline Christie is still terrifying. Like almost everything in this show, the scenes are not so shocking as they are chilling. I am reminded of how Peter Jackson brought the Nazgul to life on screen, where the menace is more powerful than the actual horror. Case in point: the Woods of Suicide and the souls clinging to the walls as Morpheus enters Hell. You only get a passing glimpse of them before the show prompts your imagination to do the rest.

I hope the truncated telling of Kai’ckul and Nada’s relationship to Matthew the Raven is not the only explanation of their love affair. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this will be further explored in future seasons.

As great as Tom Ellis was as Lucifer, I’m glad at the decision to recast this character. Gaiman imagined Lucifer Morningstar to look like David Bowie, and gender swap or not, Gwendoline Christie embodies the Lightbringer in every way that matters. Her best moments as the Morningstar surface during the duel with Morpheus in the Oldest Game. The stakes of the game are very real here, something that never came across as well in the books, I’m honest enough to say. However, Lucifer’s reaction to Morpheus’s winning move is a hammer blow, not only to the game’s end but to Lucifer’s innermost beliefs. Its impact will resonate all the way to The Season of Mists.

Much has been said about the casting of Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death, which I won’t dignify here. Those who have a problem with it do not know who Neil Gaiman is or what they’ve been reading for the last three decades. All I can say about Episode 6 (The Sound of Her Wings) is that it’s beautiful. It’s a celebration of life from the person you would least expect it from, Death. Reading it on the page was affecting, but watching Morpheus’s gradual appreciation of his sister as he follows her on her day was deeply touching. Congratulations to Tom Sturridge, who showed Morpheus's emotional growth throughout the episode, from his journey with Death to his friendship with Hob Gadling. The decision to combine both books into one episode is genius because it readies Morpheus for the next part of the series.

This brings me to The Corinthian.

I have the same relationship with The Corinthian as I do with Xenomorphs. I love them both.

As I mentioned earlier, The Collectors was the first Sandman book I read, so the expansion of this character’s role in the series was welcomed. Not only was he played with delicious perfection by Boyd Holbrook, an actor I didn’t think capable of much after The Predator, but it also makes sense the Corinthian would have a vested interest in keeping Morpheus imprisoned. Considering their last meeting in Sandman: Overtures, Corinthian’s involvement with Burgess provides a logical explanation for why the wizard could hold Morpheus for as long as he did.

The Corinthian moves through the series like a specter, and he’s terrifying even with the sunglasses on, which once again is a credit to Holbrook’s portrayal. Even when his story concludes, you can’t help but think you’re going to miss him.

Speaking of The Collectors, the episode is admittedly tame compared to the comic, but that’s alright. There is more than enough implied horror for fans. I’m not too sure about the characterization of The Doctor. This version seems a little too reckless for me, and the scythe joke feels flat. Still, the decision to have Gilbert (a stellar bit of casting by Stephen Fry) wandering through the convention areas and stumbling through each room was amazing. Watching it dawn on Gilbert’s face what these ‘cereal’ conventioners were all about was a highlight.

Once again, elements of The Dollhouse had to be rewritten for factors beyond literary expediency. Fans will understand why Lyta and Hector Hall had to be reimagined, but it matters little for those who don’t. What we got in the series is believable and perhaps more coherent to newcomers from a storytelling point of view. Besides, Gaiman kept one of my favorite scenes in The Dollhouse - Morpheus’s reaction to meeting ‘The Sandman’. The changes to Brute and Glob surprised me a bit, but as a transformative device to show how Morpheus has developed by series end, it works.

The rest of The Dollhouse follows the comics faithfully. Some characters are excised, a creative decision that works because this is a series with a lot of faces and too many of them diminishes the others. Jed is given more to do than play the victim. Rose is just as feisty. Hal is as I imagined and we got to see Martin Tenbones! The Spider women remain a cipher, but then too much explanation there would ruin their mystique.

The entire series is a sumptuous visual feast, whether it’s the CGI created Dreaming and Hell or the warm streets of England. Everything is as you imagined it would be, but it’s also not and the differences just feel right for the medium. Performances are standout, where colour blind casting has made no difference to the story being told. Hearing Patton Oswalt and Mark Hamill lend their voices to Matthew and Mervyn was fun, and the relationship of respect between Lucienne and Morpheus is something I wished we’d seen in the comics. And Desire is…. well, Desire. Mason Alexander Park is another piece of standout casting.

So here it is, my last word on The Sandman. This is an adaptation of a sprawling work that faithfully renders Gaiman’s wonderful stories to a new audience. It’s different enough to surprise and awe but familiar enough to satisfy. It’s a world fans old and new can embrace, and I’m already counting the months to Season 2 and The Season of Mists.


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