Netflix is Attempting the Impossible by Adapting ‘The Sandman’

Many have tried to bring Neil Gaiman’s popular comic to life before — and they’ve all failed.
By  · Published on July 3rd, 2019

If you’re one of the many people currently experiencing Good Omens withdrawal symptoms, you’ll be pleased to know that another Neil Gaiman property is being adapted for a streaming service. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Netflix has splashed the big bucks to bring his acclaimed Vertigo/DC Comics series The Sandman to life as a TV show.

Apparently, the deal will be the largest sum of money that DC Entertainment has ever received for a TV series. Of course, it would have to be pretty special considering that Warner Bros. and DC are competing against Netflix for subscribers in the streaming wars.

Gaiman will executive produce the series alongside David S. Goyer (Krypton), who was previously attached to produce a film version in the past. Elsewhere, Wonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg is serving as showrunner. Furthermore, Netflix has ordered an entire series which will consist of 10 episodes, according to IMDB.

If you’re unfamiliar with the story, no synopsis you’ll ever read on a website will do justice. It’s a difficult saga to describe. The cusp of it, however, follows Dream, also known as Morpheus and other names, who is one of the seven Endless, a group of powerful beings who embody different aspects of the universe. His siblings are Death, Destruction, Destiny, Delirium, Desire, and Despair.

In the comics, which ran for 75 issues plus spinoffs, Dream escapes imprisonment and sets out to regain control of the Dreaming realm and the powers he once possessed. Afterward, he travels through space and time engineering dreams and inspiring stories for living things across the universe. Naturally, this leads him to meeting a number of interesting characters, ranging from supernatural demons to real-life historical figures.

Attempts have been made to adapt the story into a film in the past. Unfortunately, every filmmaker who dared tackle the project gave up shortly after due to their inability to condense it into a feature-length movie. The sprawling nature and epic scope of the story makes it virtually impossible to fit into a single film. It’s a saga with so many layers that it demands a long-form format and a substantial budget.

Eric Heisserer, who was hired to write the last attempt at a film version, discussed the difficulties he encountered during the creative process in an interview with Gizmodo:

“I had many conversations with Neil [Gaiman] on this, and I did a lot of work on the feature and came to the conclusion that the best version of this property exists as an HBO series or limited series, not as a feature film, not even as a trilogy. The structure of the feature film really doesn’t mesh with this. So I went back and said here’s the work that I’ve done. This isn’t where it should be. It needs to go to TV. So I talked myself out of a job!”

Prior to Heisserer’s involvement, Joseph Gordon-Levitt tried to produce a film adaptation with Goyer. They recruited Jack Thorne to write the film, but it didn’t take long until the project fizzled out as the result of creative differences with the studio. A similar fate befell Roger Avary in the early ‘90s. He agreed to write and direct a big screen iteration following the success of Pulp Fiction, only to be fired due to creative disputes with a producer.

These creative differences were understandable, though. Studios want their comic book movies to be action-orientated and easy to digest. But a Sandman movie in this style wouldn’t do the story justice at all. The comics are fantastical, weird, and rooted in myths and heady philosophical ideas. Even some naysayers of comic books regard Sandman as prestigious literature, and their genre-bending elements aren’t easy to translate to a live-action medium.

While the problems that have beleaguered Sandman’s journey to the screen until now pertain to different ideas about how to go about it creatively, the upcoming Netflix incarnation still has an arduous task ahead of it. With so much source material to choose from, coupled with the fact the comics are so strange and unconventional, the creators will have to exercise some creative freedom in order to make the story succinct and cohesive for the small screen. If Netflix is in this one for the long haul, though, perhaps this adaptation will be worthy of the comics’ immortal legacy.

With Netflix paying so much to license the rights for a TV series, the streamer has shown that it’s serious about overcoming an obstacle that’s puzzled talented creators in the past. As a film, Sandman would have a commercial risk if it stayed true to the spirit of the comics. On a streaming platform, a more authentic version is possible.

As a TV show, the story has room to breathe, expand, and explore the weird and interesting corners that make the source material so compelling. In some episodes, Dream can bump into angels and devils. In others, he can inspire William Shakespeare to create a masterwork. The notion of this show is beyond exciting, but until it sees the light of day, we shouldn’t get our hopes up too high.

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Kieran is a Contributor to the website you're currently reading. He also loves the movie Varsity Blues.