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Adapting ain’t easy. Indeed, we’ve seen plenty a beloved source material have plenty of trouble making the leap to the screen. We’ve even seen a couple of Neil Gaiman adaptations that didn’t go quite as well as we would have hoped. But when the legendary creator takes a creative role in the adaptation, well, you’ve got a much better shot at doing the adaptation right.
Netflix’s adaptation of perhaps Gaiman’s most beloved work, The Sandman, has officially made its streaming debut. And if the reviews are any indication, this may be the best adaptation of Gaiman’s work yet. At a press event attended by SYFY WIRE, the cast and creatives made it clear that having Gaiman heavily involved in all aspects of the series is a big reason why. It also didn’t hurt to have such reverential source material to work with in the first place.
“It’s just so unusual when you’re building a character or when you’re embarking on a job to have a bible that’s over 2,500 pages long where you can really discover every fragment of who these characters are,” said Tom Sturridge, who plays the series’ lead, Dream/Morpheus. “So you have to begin there, that has to be your starting point and your foundation. But beyond that, this is made, our series, is made by Neil Gaiman, the man, the author, the legend… and so that offers an amazing freedom, because you know if you go in the wrong direction, he’s just going to go, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, just relax, let’s talk about this and let me guide you.’”
While perhaps having the original creator around could create added pressure, Sturridge says that wasn’t the case at all.
“I think unusually, because of his proximity to everything that we did, you actually could be much freer than you normally would, and really play with ideas and take it as far as you could, because you knew that you had the safety net of the man who created it sitting on your… well, not literally sitting on my shoulder… well he didn’t literally sit on my shoulder, Matthew the Raven did,” Sturridge said, while joking about Dream’s realm-hopping raven voiced by Patton Oswalt.
Gwendoline Christie, who plays Lucifer Morningstar on the series, noted that Gaiman’s presence, as well as showrunner Allan Heinberg's, gave her “agency” to put her own spin on the character, while noting they gave her “great empowerment.”
“It was a great relaxation to know that Allan was caretaking this, that he is a huge fan, he always has been, of the comics, he’s a huge fan of Neil’s work. Neil was heavily involved and genuinely present and accessible,” she said. “And so it was a delight to see something that’s such a visual feast that’s translating very literally, but also with a reality, a total reality, onto the screen… that was a great pleasure to see. Because those comics are not flawed; they’re a very resolved vision. And they’re really wild and imaginative, and they go into such detail and such contrasting worlds. So it’s all there, it doesn’t need much more.”
Even with all those many pages of source material to explore, Heinberg (as well as Gaiman) feels like they retained the essence of the comics, while also expanding the expansive world.
“I think the spirit of whatever we left out, I hope we retain that at least. But for the most part I discovered that what we were really doing was expanding, and building on the books, and writing scenes for characters that didn’t exist in the books, that Neil didn’t have the real estate for in the comics,” he said. “And so I tend to think of the series as less of a condensation of the material than an expansion, because we get to know so much more about the characters, and we get to explore their inner lives and their backstories in ways that Neil couldn’t do when he had 24 pages an issue.”
Of course, what Gaiman did do with the format was revolutionary, presenting the fully realized world of the Endless – the anthropomorphic personifications of Dream, Destiny, Death, Desire, Despair, Delirium, and Destruction. In the comics and series alike, it’s Dream who is the tie that binds an otherwise anthological set of stories.
"What I think is beautiful about all of our episodes is whether you see a character for a single episode or for multiple, each of these episodes stands alone. They're almost like short films. So, there are no small players in this,” said Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who plays Death. “It is absolutely not about screen time in something like this. There is a magnitude and a weight to every single character that is in The Sandman. And fans of The Sandman will know that. And new fans, people who have figured out Sandman through this show, will see that, that every single character, no matter how long you see them, has such weight.”
“It is a fascinating, incredible world, but yet still relatable. We’re telling stories, and yes it is in this fantasy setting, but for me coming to it and then delving into it, it spoke to me on a human level. It made me think a lot. It made me explore things within myself. So for me that really excited me,” said Vivienne Acheampong, who plays Morpheus' assistant in The Dreaming, Lucienne. “For me playing this role, it’s just magical, because it’s so seeped in truth about who we are as humans, about the human condition, and that’s what I love about it.”
Veteran actor Stephen Fry, who plays Gilbert in the series, feels similarly. “Because the world, or indeed I should say worlds, that are presented are so unusual and so daring in that they penetrate the membrane between the real and the illusory, or the real and the dreamlike, that in a sense the job of the actors is to be absolutely as real as possible, otherwise the whole thing floats away. So you’ve got to be anchored in the truth.”
Of course, it all goes back to the source material. But should you re-read the comics before watching the new series, or after you’ve binged it all?
“The first thing to say is if you haven’t read the comics at all, then there is nothing to fear by embarking on this journey… there may be people who are fearful that this world is too vast to enter as a virgin, and it’s not, it’s so exciting to come to it anew,” says Sturridge. “I think I would re-read them after watching it, because I think you want it to be as new an experience for you as possible basically, but I also think it’d be more thrilling to re-read them and investigate them afterwards to see the way that Neil has reexplored ideas, and the things that he’s changed it, and to understand why he has afterwards after seeing it.”
The Sandman has now risen on Netflix. Check out all 10 episodes of Season 1 now.
Looking for some fantasy content? Click here for our list of the best fantasy films available on Peacock.