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Watching the first episodes of The Sandman is like walking into Aladdin’s cave and running your fingers through all the jewels on display.
This sumptuous rendering of Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic book is a visual feast, and a treasure trove of storylines waiting to be uncovered.
Following other books dubbed ‘unfilmable’ – Dune, His Dark Materials, even Lord of the Rings – Netflix has managed to transport much of the comic book’s essence into a tightly-scripted TV series.
The books follow the Sandman (variously called the Oneiromancer, Morpheus, or Dream) across several planes of existence – including Hell, Dream’s realm and Earth – in a quest to recover the stolen items of power after they were robbed from him during a 70-year incarceration.
The protagonist is played by Tom Sturridge, in a performance that requires him to glower at pretty much all times. God forbid a smile should ever crack his solemn visage – though on the rare occasions it did, it made me warm to him considerably.
The series pays homage to the original comics, as it should. Much of the dialogue is taken verbatim from Gaiman’s source material, while several scenes from the first volumes are recreated almost exactly in the show, requiring a liberal use of CGI.
However, though much of the enjoyment of this for fans will come from checking off comparisons between the source and the adaptation, it’s not slavishly dedicated to the comics, which were first published in 1989, and some modernising twists come mainly in the form of the all-star cast.
A gender-swapped John Constantine is played with devil-may-care swagger as Johanna by Jenna Coleman; Gwendoline Christie is Lucifer; David Thewlis is enjoyably deranged as repurposed Batman villain John Dee (this is a DC comic, after all, though any allusions to DC have been dialled way down).
The parade of stars comes so thick and fast that at times, you almost want to slow things down and appreciate them a bit more, but each episode has so much to get through there is little time to stop and stare.
That said, one of the good things that the scriptwriters have done is trim down the show’s many subplots and storytelling tangents, making them slicker and a bit easier to follow, while also including as many as possible.
Some of this lands. For instance, an extended sequence showing Dream’s evolving friendship with the immortal human Hob Gadling manages to be both touching and fascinating at the same time, shedding light on Dream’s personality and evolving humanity as they enjoy drinks at the same pub across the ages.
Some bits though are less successful, for instance an early sequence with the feuding Biblical brothers Abel and Cain, which asks viewers to invest far too much, far too quickly. Why should I care that their cute gargoyle has to die in order for Dream to regain some of his power? In the comic, it works; in the TV series, the emotional background music failed to tug at my heartstrings.
This is likely to be a slow-burner for many. Non fantasy fans will struggle to become invested, while people who didn’t grow up with the comics will likely need a few episodes to wrap their heads around the mind-boggling amount of lore being paraded solemly in front of them.
But for Gaiman purists, that won’t matter one bit: any teething troubles are an occupational hazard of committing the sheer force of the writer’s epic imagination to the small screen. Roll on the good times: for Sandman fans, after a long wait, they’re finally here.
The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix