Thoughts on The Sandman, and the Future of Graphic Novel Adaptations

A few weeks ago, shortly after its premiere, I watched the Netflix live action adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s famous graphic novel series, The Sandman. I admit to not being very familiar with the source material (except for a little research I did after watching a couple seasons of Lucifer, which was loosely based on the comics). But when it comes to anything involving Mr. Gaiman, I know I’m going to try it, and The Sandman was no exception.

The Sandman focuses on Morpheus, Lord of the Dreaming, the plane that humans reach when they sleep and dream, and that often intersects with our world in strange and possibly dangerous ways. This is one of Gaiman’s very adult works, and the story is no fairytale. Morpheus himself is a tough, somewhat jaded entity, worn down by thousands of years of humans breaking his trust and meddling in things they shouldn’t.

The Netflix show is exquisitely shot, with absolutely breathtaking cinematography; crisp, clear detail in every range, from the vivid colors of a spring meadow, to a dark, drab, rainy night of terror in London or rural America. The cast is superb, with so many of the actors, even in the smallest roles, being utterly committed to either making your blood run cold (David Thewlis as John Dee immediately comes to mind), or restoring your very faith in humanity (Kirby Howell-Baptiste as Death). Despite the brevity of their scenes, Gwendolyn Christie (of Game of Thrones fame) as Lucifer Morningstar and Stephen Fry as Gilbert were truly enjoyable to watch. And my heart was absolutely captured by Matthew the raven and Gregory the Gargoyle.

Because the show is basically an anthology of several different storylines from the comics, some characters only appear in one episode (like Joanna Constantine, an updated version of the world-weary demon hunter John Constantine), and the story does skip around a fair amount, trying to fit in a lot of separate pieces. The unfortunate result is we’re introduced to an amazingly diverse and intriguing world, that we never get to dive deep into. My overall feeling when I finished watching was, “Um, sorry, but, what??”

The best example of this is the penultimate two-story episode, the season finale, “Dream of a Thousand Cats” and “Calliope.”

First, I love, love, LOVE that so many Doctor Who alum and folks who have worked with Gaiman before turned up to lend their talents to the talking cats, and to the cautionary tale of keeping a Greek muse hostage. “Dream of a Thousand Cats” was definitely one of my favorites in the whole show. Realizing it’s David Tennant saying, “Good night, Fluffball,” to an adorable animated kitten, and that it’s Sandra Oh as the Siamese feline Prophet, just put a massive smile on my face. And on a side note, I firmly believe the blueprint for a Warriors movie now exists, after watching the incredibly GORGEOUS animation in this short masterpiece.

But again, it was over so quickly, and then we were onto the next; and while I felt the vignette of “Calliope” was pretty well flushed out — in terms of the tale of the struggling author — the reveal of Calliope’s ties to Morpheus raised SOOOO many questions…that are simply left dangling.

And so we come to the second part of this discussion: Since movie and TV show versions of graphic novels are now a Big Thing, how do we maintain fan service while successfully sharing the story with a new audience?

Fan service matters; it’s a necessary appreciation for the people who helped make the original work a commercial success. But, there does have to be a transparent format for making sure those of us who weren’t around at the start get all the relevant details — without needing to Google everything later. (The Umbrella Academy is one of my biggest examples of not doing this well.)

If this isn’t executed properly, eventually the audience shrinks back to the original fans, and the show gets cancelled, or the next movie doesn’t get made. And this means fresher premises and cool characters will once again be sidelined for another exhausted reboot of the same old, same old franchises with way too many installments.

I seriously applaud studio and network executives who are trying to find something we haven’t seen a million times before. But if we can’t make these stories more accessible to more people, then the idea backfires. And I really think that’s what we need to figure out before the next big pitch goes into production.

So, what is the answer? I’m not sure, to be honest. The Sandman had big budget effects, terrific acting, good direction, and coherent scripts, but there was still a lot lacking. Many scenes felt…rushed, or cut without explaining something important. Are we to blame the staff of the editing room? They probably only followed instructions from someone else. Or the showrunners? Maybe they were simply doing their job as well, by trimming or removing or excluding. A film of any sort is a team effort, with tons of factors at play.

Though I do know we, the audience, are missing something, and I really, really hope we can get it back, and soon.

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