It’s taken 35 years, a journey through development hell, a bidding war, and more than a few nightmares, but writer Neil Gaiman believes he’s finally done the impossible. He brought The sand man on screen, without ruining the story.
The comic, which he first portrayed in 1987, had an original run in DC Comics from 1989 to 1996. Of those who read it, The sand man has since gained a cult following as one of the most influential – and creative – literary works to come out of the comic book world.
But despite creating a Hugo Award-winning prequel, a whole universe of spinoffs so popular some already are turn into their own seriesand millions of fans clamoring for a television adaptation or a movieit never happened.
In an interview with CBC, creator Neil Gaiman previously said that bringing this story to screens just wasn’t possible. The sand man follows the somewhat titular character (most often referred to as Dream, but also variously referred to as Morpheus, Lord Shaper, Kai-ckul and yes, Sandman) as he rules his domain – the dreamland where all living things go when they sleep, and where everything that was ever imagined becomes real.
This puts virtually all fictional beings – and some real beings significant enough to take on mythical status – firmly within Gaiman’s reach. While reading The sand man it’s like participating in humanity’s greatest crossover episode: everyone from DC superheroes to ancient Egyptian gods, Shakespeare, Lucifer, God, Cain and Abel help and encourage the Lord of Dreams . Even Loki – the Norse god made famous more recently by his prominent role in the Marvel Cinematic Universe – plays a role in the long plot of the The sand man the books spread out.
Gaiman himself spent decades ending attempts to bring his creation to the screen; there was just too much for a traditional movie or TV show. With the genre leap between horror and fantasy (while also hitting everything else), fantastic visuals by some of the medium’s most influential artists (original Sand seller artist Dave McKean even returned from retirement to design the show’s credits) and a dark, philosophical theme, for thirty years it proved too difficult for a writer to tackle.
And when they tried anyway?
“All that happens is you break your heart trying to figure out how to craft a plot that will actually be Sand seller,” he said.
It wasn’t until the way we create and watch TV series was reinvented that Gaiman really considered The Sand seller could work outside of a comic.
“I think it’s this thing where something that was a huge bug suddenly became a feature,” he said. Until a decade ago, a two-hour movie was considered the place to be for big-budget storytelling – and TV shows were locked into a rigid 21 or 42-minute frame. Streaming opened that up.
“Times have changed and all of a sudden the idea that you have a 3,000 page story that could be turned into 40, 50, 60, 70, 80 hours of quality television – it turns into something that is actually a huge feature and a wonderful thing.”
The final product, which launched on Netflix today, only scratches the surface of the source material (for comic book fans, the first season hits the “Doll’s House” arc in issues 9-16 ) but still manages to introduce a fair amount of the world and its characters.
This of course includes Dream himself, played by English actor Tom Sturridge, who was presented with another central problem in the story. How do you play a character who isn’t even human, who walks through the comics with complete detachment from living things, like someone who really matters to the audience?
“I think he’s emotional, but I think out of necessity he has to hold that emotion back,” Sturridge said.
The series is as much about supporting characters as it is about Dream – and sometimes more about them.
Wide cast of characters
Vanesu Samunyai plays Rose Walker, a major actor in the “Doll’s House” arc – her very first credited role. She said she won the role after years of auditioning and just before giving up acting altogether.
His casting was part of a number of changes from the comics that left some fans in awe – and saw Gaiman fight back.
Having Samunyai, who is black, play Walker changes the character, who was white in the comics. It also has a ripple effect on various members of his family – also important characters in the story, who are also played by black actors.
It’s not the end of the changes Sand seller team made. Lucifer, a significant antagonist early on, was primarily drawn to appearing more typically male in the comics – although that wasn’t the case earlier in Gaiman’s books.
In the Netflix series, The iron ThroneGwendoline Christie actress takes on the role of Lucifer – something she didn’t see as a problem in the nuanced world of Gaiman Sand seller.
“There’s no sex involved, because Lucifer isn’t human,” Christie said. “Lucifer was an angel, so it didn’t bother me at all.”
Twitter updates, anger and war
Elsewhere, the canonically non-binary character Desire — another sibling of Dream — is played by non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park. Dream’s sister Death – arguably as much or more beloved by fans than her brother – is played by black actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste. As she was originally drawn as a white woman, Gaiman was forced to defend her choice after some fans posted angry comments about his casting.
For her part, Baptiste said she was thrilled to show a different portrayal of death, which is so often portrayed as the Grim Reaper in modern media.
“I think people will find great surprise and comfort in seeing this caring, nurturing, and motherly character,” she said.
“I don’t care about people who don’t understand/have not read Sand seller complaining about a non-binary Desire or that Death is not white enough”, Gaiman tweeted last year, after the cast list was released. “Watch the show, make up your mind.”
And finally, the only character Gaiman says the team “intentionally gender swappedis Lucienne – known as Lucien in the books.
Like her castmates, actress Vivienne Acheampong didn’t see much of a problem with the change – it’s just another aspect of Gaiman’s take on the superhero genre, which seems considerably more complex. than other mainstream offerings.
“All [Gaiman’s] the characters are so rich, and the essence of that character is there,” Acheampong said. “He’s embodied in a different way [than] is on the page or maybe some people have imagined. But the essence of that being…hasn’t changed, it’s still there and very present and what I want to portray.”