Reviewing Netflix “The Sandman”

Neil Gaiman began writing ‘The Sandman‘ more than thirty years ago, back in January 1989. His run on the character continued — so Wikipedia says — to 1996. That original effort was a bit of a tour de force in fantasy story-telling, to be honest. Gaiman, still relatively new on the scene, mixed mythology, occultism, elements of the familiar DC comics stories and characters, psychology, symbolism and a serious jolt of the surreal (entirely appropriate, if you know anything about the origin of the Surrealist art movement and the artists who gave it life) to produce a tale like no other. Supported and explored by genuinely brilliant, gorgeous art from a range of talented folk, the — shit, I don’t want to say ‘comic’ but it didn’t start as a graphic novel, did it? — The Sandman quickly became a phenomenon.

Now, here’s the thing. Thirty-three years later — a Messiah’s lifetime — Netflix has brought The Sandman to screen. No expense has been spared. The cast is excellent. The production values are tremendous. The visuals and the storyline deliver a close interpretation of that original, groundbreaking work.

So why does my attention keep drifting?

Pay attention, children. I want to do this without spoilers. That will take some deft work.

First thing to note: the original comics did not deliver the story of the King of Dreams in chronological order. Nope. You see in the comics, an event in the early 20th century occurs which changes the world, threatening both the Endless King of Dreams, the entire dream-world, and the waking world as well. But Neil Gaiman, wise storyteller that he was, did not deliver that event to us neatly wrapped. No. We saw the events, but we didn’t get told what was going on. We had to make our own decisions, based on what we were seeing.

There were odd characters. Surreal events. Amazing visions. And as readers, we had to piece together the story. Twists and turns happened, and we added them together. Back and forth the story went, chasing first one dream, then another, like building a Gothic cathedral window from a junkyard pile of broken, coloured glass. It was a mystery, and it was a riddle, and the mystery and the riddle fit beautifully with the weird symbolism of the occult and the odd chunks of psychology and the incredible, surreal art and the end result was riveting. Mesmeric! You turned the pages because there was a story building around you, and every page was beautiful, and always, always you wanted to know: what came next?

And the Netflix streaming series? Well.

The characters are there. They look the part. They deliver their lines and play out their roles. But somewhere out there in TV-land… well, either the writers were too craven to trust their audience, or more likely, someone in a suit said, “Hey, this is too complicated! We gotta make it SIMPLE or the mooks won’t understand.”

And so the story does not rise from chaos and shattered glass, no. Instead, it begins at the beginning, and then predictably, cheerlessly, the events of the tale march past in order like beads on a rosary, thumbed a thousand times, rendered meaningless by repetition.

Repetition? Yes! Because without that mystery to invite us into the story, to keep us doing our own detective work, The Sandman is just another fantasy/comic-book tale. Yes, it’s pretty. Yes, it’s connected to the right sort of elements. Yes, the cast is good. But honestly? Without that mystery and uncertainty, the slow, stately pace of the comics becomes… well… rather pompous on screen. You stop seeing the gorgeous gothy qualities of the lead character, and instead (like my daughter) you find yourself noticing the actor’s seemingly permanent state of duckface – rather like a cheerleader from the mid-noughties taking a selfie for her Facebook page.

Show, don’t tell. That’s the rule they drill into us writers. And of course, the biggest flaw in the original cinematic release of Blade Runner was that godawful voice-over narrative from Harrison Ford’s Deckard, drearily narrating elements of the story in case we were too dumb to figure out what was going on. And is there a reason I mention that? But of course! For lo, despite the fact that a dozen better releases of Blade Runner since have shown in exquisite detail just how fucking stupid that voice-over narration was, I’ll let you guess exactly how the writers choose to frame the opening episode or two of The Sandman.

Can’t guess? A clue: it doesn’t work any fucking better coming from The King of Dreams than it did from Deckard.

Still, all this would be bearable given the show’s greater qualities. But unfortunately, in their eagerness to deliver The Sandman with as much fidelity as possible (fear the Wrath of Fandom, eh?) the writers and directors and producers (point the finger where you will) forgot another critically important factor.

Comics, like books, unfold at the chosen pace of the reader. Reading The Sandman, you can linger where you will to admire the astonishing art and imagery — or you can move swiftly through, pursuing the mystery and the story at a pace that suits you. And if the artist and the writer pause to indulge themselves and you find you’re not engaged… why, you can easily skim through until you’re back with the elements of the story that touch you.

TV doesn’t work that way. TV happens at the pace of the frames on the screen, at the whim of the director, at the speed of actors. You can hit fast-forward (or you can if you have the right sort of controls for your Netflix system) but you cannot comfortably flit back and forth, pause here and there, jump back a dozen pages to confirm a detail that later suddenly becomes important. No. With TV, all you can do is sit there and let the work unfold at someone else’s pace.

Peter Jackson understood this. That’s why Tom Bombadil doesn’t appear in the Lord Of The Rings films. Jackson understood that the diversion away from the main storyline, including the Old Wood, the Wicked Willow Man, the visit to Bombadil’s place, the Barrowdowns and Bombadil’s second rescue of our heroes (which supplies them with swords that are important plot devices later in the piece) would basically murder the narrative drive of that first film if he tried to include them. Smart guy, that Peter Jackson. Some of the fans bitched, but in the long run, we were all better off.

So… how does this relate to The Sandman? Ladies and gents and all other life forms who may happen to be reading this — the sheer fucking tedium of episode 5 of The Sandman left me scrolling Facebook on my phone. Meanwhile, my daughter drew intricate designs in felt pen all over her arm, a behaviour she ordinarily reserves only for the most brain-numbingly cretinous classes at school. If you watched that episode as an opener, there is NO fucking way you’d ever go back to the show. In fact, you’d probably avoid the comics and everything, anything written by Gaiman ever after.

It’s a “psychology” episode. It explores relationships between a whole set of characters not seen either before, or after in the series. It has a point to make, and at the beginning and the end of the episode there are chunks of the greater story to be delivered — but the the main body of episode 5… well. If it was a body, it would be morbidly obese and desperately unhealthy. Or maybe it would just be a corpse, except corpses are kind of interesting, especially if you’re not sure why they are where they turn out to be, and if you don’t know why they’re dead. So I guess if episode 5 was a corpse, it would be roadkill, gently stinking in the sun. Or a horse, being flogged after it’s death, rather like this inelegantly overextended metaphor.

Now, in the comics this material was delivered with the elegant art and the bare minimum of clues. You had to figure out what was going on. You had to take it on faith that the story you’d been following — building! — was still going on, and you had to parse through what you saw, at your own pace, to find the clues left by the writer. The very fact that you had to search for a way to connect it to the main story drew you into the piece and made it engaging.

Not so in the streaming series. Nope. From the beginning, we know the strange elements of episode 5 are the work of a particular character, a ‘villain’. Our nose is rubbed in that. We can’t possibly miss it. So instead of having to work out the clues and come to that satisfying moment of ‘Aha! So THAT’S why!’ we are led, bead by dreary bead, through a rosary of cod psychology and would-be insight until finally pretty much everyone is dead and the show-runners have no choice but to deliver us once more unto the realms of The Sandman.

The take-away?

Adaptations of beloved works are fraught with danger. Sometimes you get a ‘Lord Of The Rings‘… and sometimes you get ‘The Hobbit‘. This adaptation of The Sandman is neither. It falls in between. Had it been made a decade ago, it would have been almost as groundbreaking as the graphic novels/comics. But in the last decade, we’ve seen the rise of Marvel Studios, the expansion of Netflix, the Streaming Wars, the sequels to the sequels of Star Wars, and so much more.

Spectacle isn’t enough. Fantasy and weirdness and vision — yeah, they’re nice. But if the storytelling itself assumes we’re too dumb to follow the breadcrumbs deep into the forest, and if the pace plods along as predictably as a plough-horse ambling back to the stables after a day of turning the earth, the beautiful spectacle is — well, just another beautiful spectacle in an age of the things.

Don’t let me put you off. I’m only halfway through the series. There’s more to come — and yes, I’m a picky sonofabitch when it comes to this kind of thing. Your experience of the work belongs to you, and if you’re still able to be delighted by spectacle and imagery and fantastic scenes of imagination, there’s a lot to appreciate in this adaptation.

But me? Well. The last scene of Episode 5 (halfway through the series) gives us a hitherto unseen character. Androgynous, laughing, wearing a beige/cream suit, the character looks into the camera and says portentously, “I’m watching you, brother,” or words to that effect.

Now, in the comics Gaiman wove multiple loose threads into the narrative in the form of strange characters, odd moments, weird images, peculiar incidents. And it is Gaiman’s particular genius that he made almost all of those seemingly loose threads weave into the narrative as he went. When one character-thread ran out, he picked up another, and twined it around a seemingly unrelated thread from elsewhere, and suddenly the story was moving in another direction entirely.

There’s at least a little of that in the TV adaptation. There’s a villainous, murderous character escaped from The Dream World who works behind the scenes to thwart our pale, duckfaced hero — and we know they’re due for a confrontation sooner or later. Also, by episode 5 the King of Dreams has managed to piss off at least one vastly powerful figure out of mythology, and that may well pay off down the line.

But the comics NEVER resorted to throwing an unknown character onto the final page of any issue, and having that character deliver portentous lines while looking into the camera. Gaiman was better than that by far.

So… I’ll keep watching. For now. But The Sandman is on notice. The quality of cinematic storytelling has fallen as far as it can while still holding any interest for me. Indeed, if I had not read the original comics, I would already have dismissed this, losing interest as I’ve lost interest in six, ten, a dozen formulaic fantasy shows on Netflix and elsewhere.

Finally: if you haven’t read the comics, don’t judge them by what you’re seeing. The comic art is better. The storytelling is far better, and ideas are sharper, more dangerous, more seductive and strange. You should get those comics and read them.

3 comments

  1. barnesm · · Reply

    It’s always a challenge for me when something I loved from years ago gets an adaptation in another media. I can’t judge the new incarnation solely on its own merits. This is why I would be interested in comments from those who never read The Sandman comics on this series. Regarding “The last scene of Episode 5 (halfway through the series) gives us a hitherto unseen character” I knew who they were but without going back and rewatching I thought they had either been mentioned or appeared fleeting earlier. IMDB lists the actor as appearing in 8 of this series of episodes so they must have been in there prior to episode 5, given if that was their first appearance then they could have only been in 5 episodes. So far episode 6 is the one I found most engaging.

    1. I look forward to Ep Six, then.

      And you’re right, of course. I can’t judge this without thinking of the comics. But on the other hand, this sort of writing and thinking is exactly what I do, and I can be effectively critical despite the previous knowledge.

      Here’s a thing. Why did they introduce the Corinthian in Ep 1? Why did we immediately learn he’s a rogue nightmare? How much better would it have been if he was just a Mysterious Character? If that was so, then the revelation of his eyes in the conversation with Edith Art-thief would have been a genuine shock. And what would have been lost? After all, once she blitzes him with the amulet his very next scene is in The Dream, where Lucien clearly identifies him and he explicates his own agenda.

      The entire introduction of the character served only to strip him of mystery for the viewers. You could argue that it helped introduce the King of Dreams — but I’d then say we didn’t need THAT introduction either. The big ‘hook’ of the first comic was the question of the identity of the trapped entity. The Sleeping Sickness became a clue, a mystery to build with. But they screwed that too, with a bland expository voice-over explaining that the capture of the Dream King obviously messed up people’s sleep.

      In the comics, that was a bit of genius. Gaiman took a real-world event and put a fantastic spin on it, weaving it into the tale and giving us hints at the scope of Dream’s influence. Brilliant. But in the series? It’s a side note. It’s a bit of unnecessary exposition.

      They should have trusted us. Audiences love a bit of mystery.

  2. “Audiences love a bit of mystery” …do they? Because one of the most common things I find myself in disagreement over with many, many people these days is the amount of time I’m willing to give a show before I give up. I’ll go 2-3 eps, but I know many people who’ll give a show 10mins, 20 tops. In an age with so much content so close at hand they want what they want now. Right now. I suspect the exposition – something you’ve never liked – was actually a smart play here. The fans already know what’s going on and the newcomers get an idea of what’s going on and might stay more for than 10-20 mins of ‘It’s pretty, but what is going on?’

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