Life & Culture

The Sandman TV review: What have they done to the comic icon I loved?

Hope were high for Netflix's adaptation of Neil Gaiman's classic creation, so it’s gutting to see the dream crash and burn on the small screen


Netflix | ★★✩✩✩

I wish I could fully express the impact The Sandman comics had on my teenage self. The writer Neil Gaiman, born Jewish, raised by scientologists, educated in a Church of England school, made a barmitzvah by observant family members, utilised his eclectic background to phenomenal effect.

Jumping across time, cultures, mythologies, and even species, the story of Dream of the Endless, the embodiment of our unconsciousness, somehow managed in its economically-expressed panels to incorporate huge ideas and concepts, and miraculously led to me cracking open a book or two in order to comprehend its myriad real world references. I don’t think it’s hyperbolic to say that over its seven year run it became a treatise on existence. So, obviously, no pressure on this adaptation then.

Various films have been in development for decades, but it’s only with a longer form TV series, in this era where the artistry on the small screen regularly outclasses the large, that there finally seemed to be potential to do the source material justice.

And with Netflix’s involvement, committing its cash and pedigree, hopes ran even higher. Not least for Netflix — The Sandman is its big summer hope for retaining fleeing subscribers. It’s extremely gutting then, that in its accommodations with the real world of technology and ideology, the dream has crashed and burned.

Let’s get the easiest of the two criticisms out of the way; the special effects, in fact the entire look of the series, isn’t up to scratch. Squint, and it’ll seem as though you’re watching an expensive Dr Who episode. With some of the comic’s 2D pages being literal works of art, how they managed to make everything look even flatter when transposed to 3D is a feat of neglect.

The unfortunate consequence for the actors, is it diminishes their efforts, lending everything a hammish veneer. Only David Thewlis’s talent is enough to override the limitations of the environment.

Harder to dance about, for fear of accusations of bigotry, is the choice of actors, particularly in relation to ethnicity, but also gender. Written over 30 years ago, and a tale of fantasy, there is no reason why certain characters don’t work equally as well or even better with more diverse and representative casting.

Arguably though, for fantasy to work, it has to be grounded somewhat in reality. Yet in one of the better episodes as we revisit the same pub every hundred years from the middle ages to today, people of colour feature in every scene. I know there’s been a black presence recorded in British history since the Roman times, but in 1389, 1489, 1589, 1689, surely that makes this the most multicultural pub ever.

Like Bridgerton, is this colour-blind casting? Cool, except it then lessens the impact when real world events like the transatlantic slave trade become part of the story.
And what does it mean for the real ‘other’ of the middle ages, we Jews, having been evicted from England in 1290, and our tacit return a century and a half later?

We even get a name check here as the wandering Jew, but are we meant to believe that Britain’s native population were so accepting of everyone else? These are questions for someone with a more fitting breadth of ability and space, but what will I will state is that when it comes to world building, lack of consistency only breeds confusion, and distracts from the story.

What’s also frustrating is that the comic was so much more successful in these matters; an 18th Century badass and ruthless Lady Johanna Constantine putting her male descendent to shame, the way that Dream’s African princess ex also sees him as African, illustrating how our eye is captured by our Western solipsism. In the comic they did more with less, the choices here have led to less with more.

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