Written by: Siddhartha Krishnan . 5 Min Read
To the unversed, a species that I belonged to as far as The Sandman is concerned, this new Netflix series might seem like a fantasy epic similar to The Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or The Chronicles of Narnia. But such an assertion may not be fully correct. However, don’t get fooled into thinking that this is a Game of Thrones either! While Sandman’s universe boasts of gargoyles and other fantastic creatures, they deliciously exist only in the realm of where we spend one-third of our life—sleep. Thus, the concept and truths that this web series explores are as deep as our fabulous dreams and our worst nightmares.
The Sandman subverts the fantasy genre in more ways than one, in the end catering more to gothic horror fans than to fantasy fiction puritans. So there are many dark themes explored here with its fair share of blood and gore. But it also has an emotional depth that you don’t generally see in fantasy epics.
Based on the DC graphic novel series written by Neil Gaiman, published between 1989-1996, this screen adaptation was long awaited by its ardent fans. I don’t fall into that category, having discovered Gaiman’s writings only a year and a half ago. But ever since, his style of writing and his imagination have impressed me. He has a way of telling very true things in the most magical and unexpected ways. But I went into this series with little expectation since I am not a big fan of fantasy fiction. My apprehension―how was this adaptation going to appeal to an audience who knows nothing about the Sandman comics?
I was in for a pleasant surprise!
In recent memory, I don’t remember seeing a more precise and compelling opening to a series than this one. In just under three minutes, the concept, the world and the purpose of the story are unraveled.
I was hooked! At least for the first 6 episodes.
The hero, Morpheus, also known as Sandman or simply the Dream, is a god who controls the dreams of humans. We go into his realm to seek freedom and adventure and to face our fears and fantasies. He must control our dreams lest they consume and destroy us. But Morpheus is not a flawless god. He is vulnerable and often needs advice. He belongs to the family of the endless, whose members include desire, destiny, delirium, destruction, death and despair. Three of whom we meet in the first season. These eternal and universal forces have been given anthropomorphic personifications.
The story begins in 1916, when an occultist named Roderick Burgess invokes the god of death to revive his dead son, but mistakenly captures Morpheus. Unwilling to let go of the god he has erroneously taken captive; the Magus tries to seize his powers forcefully. He steals Morpheus’s tools in a bid to get richer. Thus, the lord of dreams is held captive for 100 yrs. When he finally manages to free himself, he realizes that without his tools; he isn’t as powerful as he used to be. So he goes in search of them, to restore balance in the waking world of humans whose dreams have gone berserk. Thus, begins an adventure through many magical worlds, including hell. We travel through a non-linear timeline spanning thousands of years to meet mythical characters like Lucifer and historical figures like Shakespeare. The scale is epic to the point of being overwhelming at times. But it remains for most parts engaging.
Season 1 adapts the first 2 volumes of the comic book series―Preludes and Nocturnes, and The Doll’s house. I found the first six episodes to be the most entertaining. Things move quickly and the themes are mostly dark. The much talked about fifth episode where the character John Dee puts his theory of truth and lies to the test, inside a diner using the staff and customers as guinea pigs, is where the writing is at its best. I am given to understand that the screenplay departs the furthest from the original in this episode. Critics of the graphic novel have said that Gaiman’s writing was the weakest here, where he subscribed to the horror tropes of the 80’s. I cannot comment on that, since I have not read the original, but I can say with certainty, that this contemporary adaptation made for some gripping cinema.
While the world and character building of the show are exemplary, adeptly supported by the CGI work, sound design and background score, the dialogues though did not sit well with me at all times. Especially in the later episodes where things get a bit verbose and sanctimonious. The darker characters have better lines than the virtuous ones. Furthermore, most characters are a shade of grey. There is no clear villain, except for Burgess, perhaps, and the truth is not monopolized only by the good guys.
From the little research that I have done, it was amply clear that while the screenplay writers (David S. Goyer, Allan Heinberg and Neil Gaiman) have been faithful to the original work; they weren’t imprisoned by it. The subtle changes that have been made were to better the original story or to contemporize it. The gender swapping of certain characters, for example, is not a trope but an attempt to give more life to the original characters. To an unassuming viewer like me, though, all of it came across as quite natural.
That brings us to the casting, which is another strong point of the web series. Tom Sturridge as Morpheus is brilliant, bringing the right amount of strength and vulnerability to his character. His physicality and voice were also apt for the role. Among, the supporting cast, I thought, Boyd Holbrook as the rogue nightmare Corinthian, Gwendoline Christie as Lucifer Morningstar and David Thewlis as John Dee were the most eye-catching. Mason Alexander makes a short, interesting appearance in this Season, as the gender fluid ‘desire’, evoking curiosity within the audience about the future of this character.
Considered as one of the most imaginative and intellectually stimulating comics ever made, The Sandman is one of those written materials which was thought to be unfilmable, much like The Life of Pi. It is a rare blend of mythology, history, horror and fantasy which gets the mind ticking. In the end, I think, for the fans the long wait has been worth it. The show has garnered rave reviews from critics and fans alike. As a relatively new fan of Mr. Gaiman and as someone who has not read the original work, I can only say that this Netflix series has all the ingredients to be a long running one. It is a brilliant adaptation of a classic that is not just made for its ardent fans.
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and movie reviews.
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