Netflix's 'The Sandman' brings Neil Gaiman's 'unfilmable' story to live. And it's beautiful.
Netflix's 'The Sandman' is a best new show of 2022. It brings Neil Gaiman's 'unfilmable' graphic novel to the screen. DC Comics and HBO Max missed out.
As one of the most expensive properties Netflix picked up in 2019, “The Sandman” represents yet another pre-eminent release amid the backdrop of a very challenging year. The title, which turned author Neil Gaiman into a household name, is Netflix’s big budget franchise release for August. And it is one of the most imaginative and gorgeous creations to emerge from our current era of high-profile big budget fantasy titles.
The title, which turned author Neil Gaiman into a household name, is Netflix’s big budget franchise release for August.
DC Comics initially released the first of Gaiman’s “Sandman” comics in 1989. It was a landmark moment in the industry: the birth of the graphic novel. “The Sandman” is a story about “The Endless,” a group of metaphysical entities defined as Dream, Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium and Destruction. Their stories, told in a format not unlike modern Greco-Roman myths, created a comic that displayed a depth and maturity not normally associated with the genre. The rare graphic novel to hit The New York Times best seller list, it still stands as one of the few comics to receive critical acclaim, and to be treated as if it was intended for adults, not children.
Despite being released in a visual format, it is also an artistic work that’s long been considered rather unfilmable. And I don’t mean in the way “Game of Thrones” was once considered unadaptable; though it is also a fantasy series filled with implausible cities and magical creatures. Rather, it’s the tale itself that does not transfer easily to the televisual medium, like trying to turn Modest Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition” into a trilogy of movies or a 10-episode limited series. And indeed, various failed attempts at adaptation have wandered through development hell since the comic was completed in 1996. This is in large part due to the series’ lack of easily characterized protagonists and antagonists, but the structure of the stories themselves also presents a challenge. The story “24 Hours,” for example, is defined as much by the way the graphics are laid out — 24 pages, one per hour — as it is by the plot.
But Gaiman’s involvement seems to have been the key to Netflix’s artistic success. Having him on board granted the series’ writers license to translate to the screen as they saw fit; Gaiman himself is co-credited with writing the series premiere. The result is a show that is startingly faithful to the comic in tone and visuals but which alters it just enough to build a consistent linear narrative around which digressions can orbit.