In a departure from my usual unhipness, I’ve been streaming TV shows like a normal human being. I picked up Netflix in order to watch Sandman. It’s only $15 a month!
Quick verdict: it’s great; I’m really hoping now for Season Two. It does justice to the comics. And best of all, my wife likes it, and she is not a big fantasy fan. We just finished the last, bonus episode last night.
To make something like this work, both the casting and the writing have to hit. They scored big with all the ones they really had to: Dream (Tom Sturridge), Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), John Dee (David Thewlis), and the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook). I heard part of the audiobook adaptation and couldn’t buy Dream and Death there, so this is big.
Dream is the most challenging of these: he’s perfectly suited for the comics page, where we only have to see his gothic splendor. But most of the comics images (e.g. those starry non-eyes, or the over-flowing robes) would look campy on-screen. Plus– his whole thing is that he’s uptight and a bit of an asshole. Sturridge is just right for all this (once you get used to his prettiness). I was worried at first that he was under-emoting, but I think he does a lot very subtly.
Gaiman, and the directors, take the point of view that enormously powerful entities (Sandman, Lucifer, Corinthian) can be calm and elaborately polite. The shouting madman as villain is real, but always conceals an underlying fear, a fear that he will not be taken seriously. The truly powerful person can be quiet because they know their orders will be fulfilled. Sturridge is the positive side of this: a guy where you should worry if he furrows his brow. Holbrook is the evil version, underlining his menace with Southern charm.
Death is Gaiman’s most perfect, most iconic character, and Howell-Baptiste nails her. She is warm and caring and yet catpures that older-sister ability to make Dream think.
The set design is good. I like touches like Matthew flying into the ceiling of Dream’s throne room, the painting turning into a 3-D scene; then ending up in Earth’s sky. It’s a nice use of the new medium: comics can show us amazing spaces, but it’s not good at transitions.
The usual trolls have complained about changes in race and sex. As Gaiman has gleefully pointed out, these folks entirely missed the point of the comics, where it was shown many times that the Endless are shown as they appear to the being observing them, be it human, cat, or alien sentient flower. Even Abel and Cain note that they are not actually human. But the comics, progressive for their time, feel a bit dated in their whiteness, and I’m glad they’ve been updated. The only one that I feel doesn’t quite work is Lucifer. Gwendoline Christie gets the surface suavity and politeness, but not the menace. And there’s something oddly stiff about her bearing, as if she’s being held up by her gowns.
I looked at a few reviews and found them quite weird– I suspect the reviewers a) see too much TV, and b) lack an affinity for the material. I haven’t seen much TV in years, and that probably improves the experience for me. The show isn’t lost in a sea of other fantasy/sf adaptations for me; I’m not bored by the tropes or the actors. E.g. one reviewer thought some episodes were “padded”, which is a weird thing to say when they’re rushing through like 15 comics in 10 hours. Another said Kyo Ra wasn’t that great; I disagree, though my wife didn’t.
Some things hit harder in a live-action version. The horrific abuse of Jed, for instance. It’s almost all taken straight from the comics, but it’s a lot more visceral when you see an actual human being as evil as Barnaby.
I’m going to talk about specific scenes and changes now, so I suggest you put this aside if you’re afraid of spoilers.
A lot of reviews seem to think this was a very tight adaptation. Parts of it are (especially the “cereal convention” bits), but there are quite a few little changes. E.g.:
- The nods to DC heroes are gone.
- Poor Gregory!
- Lyta is now just a friend of Rose’s, not a resident of the Dream Dome. She’s also a sweet helper rather than merely depressive.
- Ethel doesn’t run away with Ruthven Sykes.
- Matthew appears earlier, and his predecessor Jessamy appears in ep 1; it’s rather a shock that Alex kills her.
- Alex was relatively trusted in the comics; here he is abused and disdained.
- The Corinthian’s role is greatly beefed up. He instructs Burgess on how to keep Dream safe, and rescues Jed from his horrible foster parents. He interacts with Rose, giving her more options (why not take over the Dreaming?!).
- Johanna Constantine gets a whole subplot to show off her powers; and another one to make her relationship to Rachel far more poignant. (Also, wow, she looks better in a trenchcoat than John ever did.)
- John Dee is quite changed. Rather than simply being a power-mad psychotic, he has a whole theme: an abhorrence of lies, due to the constant lying of his mother. His driver is blessed instead of murdered.
- Brute and Glob are gone, replaced by Gault, whose motivations are positive rather than negative.
- Hell is no longer a triumvirate.
- Death gives more of an explanation of why she is happy to do her job.
- Both Rose and Hob get to show off some self-defense skills.
- There is way less female nudity: in the comics, Calliope was kept naked, Rose is half-nude in her final confrontation with Dream, and Despair wears no clothes. Ironically the only nudity is male: Dream in ep 1, and Ken in his dreams.
Almost always these changes are for the better, and feel more in line with Gaiman’s work overall. In the first volume of the comics, he was still feeling out his way, and tried too hard to be gross or shocking. Most of the changes create more continuity (e.g. more use of the Corinthian and Matthew), or strengthen the characters, or humanize the villains, or underline Dream’s need to learn empathy.
The diner episode is more watchable than I feared, probably because it didn’t feel like gratuitous violence… Dee is not just exerting power, but exposing lies… which turns out to be a really bad idea. I couldn’t watch the murder-suicides though. On the other hand the second half of this episode seems rushed: it should should take longer for Dee to believe he’s triumphed and then suddenly realize he hasn’t.
A few things I wasn’t so sure about:
- Burgess having to learn from the Corinthian who he’d captured. I’m also not so sure about Burgess dying due to violence rather than just bitter old age.
- Chantal and Zelda seem way too Addams Family. But the original comic kind of misfires here too: the residents of the house are kind of pointlessly weird. (I loved Hal though.)
- I didn’t like Choronzon’s challenge passing to Lucifer. The whole idea was that this petty demon was predictable; it makes less sense that Lucifer was stumped.
- I missed Death’s casual remark that she could “patter Romany”. But I’m a language geek.
- I kind of miss the gate guardians. But they probably had a limited CGI budget.
- Ep 10 has too many endings. I’d have left out the whole Hell scene.
The bonus episodes are not my favorites, but I expect I’m in the minority here. “Cats” is a neat idea wrapped up in a shallow joke. Well animated though. “Calliope” is very 90s: damsel in distress, with her rapist condemned, but humanized more than his victim. They’ve updated it– Calliope is a tad feister, isn’t blonde, and doesn’t have to be naked. The story is strangely anti-writer; it may be Gaiman’s version of the sad boner professor.
Re-reading my own review of the comics, I note that my major complaint was the art. I think that holds up: a lot of the volumes would have worked much better if an artist like J.H. Williams (Sandman Overture) or John Cassaday (Planetary) had drawn them. Maybe the best thing about the TV series is that it corrects that problem– it’s always gorgeous.