Friday Film Review: The Sandman

Growing up, a lot of my taste in media was influenced by my older brother. I’ve encountered a lot of good stuff (and some bad stuff) based on either his recommendations, or on what he just had on his bookshelf. The Sandman was “good stuff”. It’s a surreal, and sometimes horrific comic about the anthropomorphic personification of The Dreaming – a world made up of the collective dreams of all beings. Those of you with the fortitude to read my first novel will probably notice rather a lot of influence from him in my writing at that point. While I’m grateful that I’ve outgrown that copycat phase in my own writing, Gaiman’s work – especially Sandman – remains some of my favorite fiction.

So I felt nervous when I hear there was going to be an adaptation of it. My mind tends to hold on to details from stories I read or watch, and so film adaptations have been a sore spot for me for a long time. The effects tend not to be as I imagined or hoped, the characters are interpreted differently, the plots are changed – it’s annoying to see an adaptation that falls short of what I feel the story deserved.

I was very worried about Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings adaptation. Overall it was wonderful, and the effects were fantastic, but there were choices made that bothered me enough to sour the experience. I didn’t appreciate Frodo being turned into a sort of piteous burden, carried through the journey by others. It’s not that he didn’t need their help in the books, but he didn’t go catatonic every time the ringwraiths showed up. Likewise, I feel that Jackson butchered the character of Faramir, and his justification for it was rubbish.

All I will say about his adaptation of The Hobbit, is that I could barely make it through the first film, and didn’t bother with the others.

So yeah – my initial intent was to avoid this new adaptation like the plague. I don’t appreciate having schlocky film versions cluttering up my memories of a good story. That lasted for a while, but eventually my curiosity got the better of me. I’m glad it did.

I’d heard that Gaiman was working closely with this adaptation, which was a good sign. I also liked the recent adaptation of Good Omens – a collaboration between Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. The fact that the original was in comic form also meant that the original vision was already there to copy. Combine that with recent advances in visual effects, and you’ve got everything you need for a good adaptation, at least in theory.

Even with newly elevated hopes, this show exceeded my expectations.

The first thing to note is that it’s very clear a lot of care went into recreating the visuals from the comics. The story will be familiar to those who’ve read them, and most of the characters will be largely what you expect. There are changes in appearance, and in some cases gender for a number of the characters, but in my opinion, they’ve done an admirable job in capturing the characters I’ve loved for so long.

Second, I want to talk about the changes. Any adaptation has changes from the original text. For all they’re both visual media, comics and film are still very different, and Sandman relies heavily on text narrative in addition to visuals and dialogue. The Sandman comics were also a part of the DC comics universe, and so a number of characters from that universe, like John Constantine or Martian Manhunter, needed no real introduction. This series is separate from that superhero universe, so some changes were made to allow for that, while keeping the central plot intact.

And honestly? A lot of the changes just made the story better. Violence and gore are some of the things that don’t tend to have a one-to-one translation from comics to film. While this series does have violence and gore, it’s less explicit than in the comics, and much more in service to plot and characters. A great many side characters are far more fleshed out, in ways that serve the story very well. The show also makes masterful use of suspense that’s effective even for those of us who know where the story’s going.

I get the feeling that Gaiman’s view of his own work has shifted, slightly, in the decades since the the first volume came out, and this show was a chance for him to do it all better. It may be that they’ll blow it in later seasons, but that seems unlikely to me. I now have very high hopes for the rest of the series, and I expect that this will remain one of my favorites for a long time.

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  1. lochaber says

    It’s been long enough since I read the comics that I don’t remember a lot of the specifics, but I felt like they really nailed the general aesthetic and “feel” of the old graphic novels. And I thought the casting was pretty decent.

    I forget where, but I read something about they hired the same artist to do the credit scene backgrounds, who also did the cover art for the original graphic novels, so that was a nice tough.

    I kinda wished they held off a bit longer before the “reveal” for The Corinthian, but that’s about as much as I have as far as complaints go. 🙂

  2. Katydid says

    I’ve found if I like something, then the DC universe fans and the comic book fans hate it. And vice versa. E.g. loved Constantine with Tim Roth; that show didn’t even make it a season on tv. Loved the tv show Lucifer (based off the character from Sandman), heard endlessly about why the DC fans thought it sucked. So, when Sandman appeared on Netflix and I thought it was pretty good, I expected people to whine endlessly about how much they hated it.

    Good to see others enjoying it.

  3. says

    @Lochaber – Yeah, that was a surprise, but I think it helped the overall narrative. I also didn’t like Matthew’s interference in the duel in Hell – that felt like an obvious violation of the rules.

  4. says

    @Katydid – I think I recall some of the fans whining about changes to gender or race of certain characters, but Gaiman’s active on Twitter, and unambiguous in his support. I think he also lost a lot of the bigots when he took a stand for trans rights.

  5. mordred says

    Yeah, The Sandman was pretty big for me too. Still not sure if I really like the TV series. I’m quite terrible with adaptions, hated even the first LoTR film…
    It is incredibly well done TV in any case.
    Also got some laughs from some guys on the net complaining how Netflix ruined the series by making it “woke”. Someone really hasn’t read the original.

  6. lochaber says

    Katydid@2> I’m not great with actor/actress names and such, is that the Constantine that was somewhat tied into/crossed over with the Arrowverse shows/Legends of Tomorrow? If so, I also really liked that show, and thought the actor did a great job of getting not just Constantine’s appearance, but his personality, and that the show directly addressed his bisexuality. I also liked Lucifer, but switched what streaming service I was using before it finished, and never quite got around to watching the rest of it. Kinda wished they kept Mazikeen’s original face…

    I feel like the TV/Movie side of the DCU is all over the place. I feel like the corporate people are trying to chase after the MCU’s popularity, without understanding what went into building up that franchise. (mostly thinking of that Justice League movie a few years back…), but there are also some adaptations that are really good, especially if they are less associated with the big three, or a Vertigo title, etc. I’ve heard good things about Doom Patrol, but haven’t had access to any of it yet… And I thought The Watchmen TV series was pretty good, and captured a lot of elements from the graphic novel that the movie glossed over.

  7. Katydid says

    @Lochaber; I looked this up and it wasn’t Tim Roth as Constantine back in 2014 (why not? He’d have been perfect); it was Matt Ryan–who was also really good. According to Wikipedia, he went on to the Arrowverse but as I only saw 2 – 3 episodes of that, I couldn’t say. Also, I have zero idea if the character of Constantine was bisexual. The season of Constantine didn’t address his sexuality (as far as I remember, anyway).

  8. Katydid says

    Oh, P.S. @ Lochaber: Lucifer the tv series started on Fox and only went to Netflix after Fox saw it was a hit while also being intelligent and creative…and therefore declined to host it anymore. At some point in the beginning credits, it said it was based on the character from Sandman. Minor spoiler: when the Netflix Sandman series spent time in Lucifer’s realm, Maze was indeed more gruesome and Lucifer was a woman and Hell wasn’t depicted much like it was in the Lucifer series. I have no idea which one is more accurate.

  9. mordred says

    @8 Lucifer was played by a woman. In the comics he looked mostly male but was pretty androgynous so that worked for me. Lucifer (and the other angels) were much less human in the Sandman comics than in the Lucifer series, so them not having human genders would make sense.
    Mazikeen looked much more gruesome in the comics, the depiction of hell is pretty close but I prefer the comic version.
    Generally, the Lucifer series only has the basic idea (Lucifer leaves hell and lives on earth) in common with his appearance in The Sandman.

  10. says

    Also spoilers for relevant stories.

    I honestly don’t know if there are comics following Lucifer’s “retirement”, but if memory serves, Mazikeen’s face was much more rotted away (exposed brain, for example), and her speech was barely intelligible because her lips, tongue, and vocal chords were also half-rotted. When they went to Earth, she took to wearing a mask and a scarf to hide it.

    It’s also my understanding that demons have a very different idea of beauty and what it means to be whole or injured. She’s not “deformed” or scarred or damaged – that’s just her form, as a demon.

    It makes sense that they toned it down a bit for the show – they toned hell down quite a lot as well. It also make sense, given the KIND of show that Lucifer is, that they went with “her true face is only visible in mirrors in one episode in the beginning”, and she’s just a beautiful woman who also happens to be a demon for 99.9999% of the show.

  11. Katydid says

    There was at least one episode of the tv series Lucifer–when Maze takes Lt. Decker’s daughter trick-or-treating–that she shows her true face to the guy answering the door. It’s nowhere near as gruesome as the Sandman series version (where it looks like she’s been burned and her eye on that side is missing). I gleaned from that scene that Maze can control who sees her true face.

  12. says

    @Katydid – that makes sense. I’ve only seen bits and pieces of later episodes, but I think there’s a time when she gets her face “healed”, and she’s enraged at the violation and disfigurement.

  13. Dunc says

    I get the feeling that Gaiman’s view of his own work has shifted, slightly, in the decades since the the first volume came out, and this show was a chance for him to do it all better.

    Gaiman has been very clear in the past that he didn’t really find his feet with it until “The Sound of Her Wings”, and there was lot about that first volume that he’d do differently in retrospect.

    I’m still only about halfway through, but I think they’ve done a fantastic job of it.

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