With The Sandman, Netflix realizes a fantastical dream 30 years in the making

Tom Sturridge's Morpheus sits in a chair against a pale blue background in Netflix's adaptation of The Sandman
Finally, a live-action adaptation of Neil Gaiman's The Sandman will see the light of day. (Image credit: Netflix)

For 30-plus years, Neil Gaiman has been plagued by a reoccurring nightmare. The legendary British author, whose works have captured the imaginations of millions worldwide, has seen many of his books, novellas, and comic series turned into successful live-action properties – Coraline, American Gods, and Good Omens being three such examples. 

But the thing that's kept him awake? The Sandman. It's his most iconic series, but multiple failed attempts to adapt it for the big and small screen have tormented Gaiman for three decades. Numerous live-action Sandman projects have been greenlit, only to languish in development hell and eventually be cancelled. Gaiman can be forgiven, then, for thinking a Sandman movie or TV show would never happen.

33 years on from The Sandman's initial release, that dream has been realized. A 10-part Netflix series, based on Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg's beloved works, is ready for its worldwide launch – and, for Gaiman, it's a thrilling moment worth savoring.

"This is the first time Warner Brothers looked at me and thought 'Oh, he knows what he's doing," Gaiman tells TechRadar. "It never felt like we were fighting [for creative control]. Nobody was looking at the 3,000 page-plus story and thinking 'How do we turn this into a two-hour movie?' For the first time, we get to tell the story of The Sandman at our own pace and with its own shape."

Enter Sandman

Morpheus stands on a barren landscape, with his magical helm in his hand, during a sunset in Netflix's The Sandman TV series

The Sandman is a complex, interweaving narrative that seems tailor made for television. (Image credit: Netflix)

The Sandman tells the tale of Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), aka Dream/the titular Sandman, one of the seven beings known as the Endless and the King of the Dream Dimension. As its ruler, Morpheus is tasked with creating the dreams and nightmares that humans experience when they sleep.

When one of his nightmarish creations – The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) – goes missing on Earth, Morpheus sets out to bring him home. However, Morpheus is unwittingly captured by amateur sorcerer Sir Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) when an occult-based ritual goes awry. Rather than allow Morpheus to leave, though, the Burgess family imprison him and take Morpheus' magical items – his sand pouch, helm, and dreamstone – for their own.

Eventually escaping 106 years later, Morpheus returns to the Dream Dimension, only to find it's fallen into ruin and, save for a few loyal citizens including the librarian Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong), deserted. Vowing to restore order, Morpheus sets out to retrieve his magical heirlooms and rebuild his realm – but doing so won't be as straightforward.

As The Sandman's co-creator, Gaiman is well aware of the obstacles that stand in Morpheus' way. Ever since Warner Bros. first expressed interest in adapting The Sandman, Gaiman has, in his own words, been "kept at arm's length" whenever a new (but ultimately fruitless) Sandman adaptation was approved.

For the first time, we get to tell The Sandman with its own shape

Neil Gaiman, The Sandman co-creator

The first, a movie adaptation set to be directed by Pulp Fiction's Roger Avary, was canned in 1996 after Avary was fired over creative differences. Two years later, a second attempt at a Sandman film was quickly dismissed when a draft from William Farmer (Jonah Hex) was universally panned by fans and Gaiman, who called it "quite easily the worst script I've ever read". Given Farmer wanted to portray Morpheus as the villain of the piece and install Lucifer Morningstar as Morpheus' brother – major deviations from the comics, no less – you can understand Gaiman's reasoning.

The Corinthian looks down at an olive on a toothpick in a dingy apartment in Netflix's The Sandman

The Corinthian is the reason why Morpheus becomes trapped on earth for over a century. (Image credit: Netflix)

Years later, a live-action film starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt – one involving Gaiman, David S Goyer (Foundation), Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials), and Eric Heisserer (Shadow and Bone) at various stages of development – spent two years in development before it was shelved.

Two Sandman HBO TV series, pitched by James Mangold (Logan) and Eric Kripke (The Boys, Supernatural) were also considered but ultimately rejected. It wasn't until June 2019, when Netflix and Warner Bros. agreed to co-produce a Sandman TV show with the care and attention it deserved, that a live-action iteration of Gaiman's works was finally realized.

Still, multiple obstacles remained, including hiring the right actors to portray The Sandman's eclectic cast of characters. Before that, though, one question stood out amongst the rest: how do you make The Sandman's complex and dense story accessible to those who haven't read the graphic novels, or even a single comic book, before?

"We were very cognizant of wanting to make sure that people, who had never read a comic book before in their lives, to feel comfortable," showrunner and co-executive producer Allan Heinberg says. "I always saw The Sandman as a relationship and family drama. My background has been in making rom-coms or emotion-centric dramas, so I think the studio felt better that this wasn't going to be an out-there fantasy series. Of course, it's primarily a fantasy-based show, but it's a very grounded and realistic series. It's about how these characters feel and how they feel about each other."

Dreaming of the perfect cast

Tom Sturridge's Dream and Kirby Howell-Baptiste's Death look at a building off screen in Netflix's The Sandman TV show

The Sandman is more than just the story of one cosmic deity's quest to restore order to his kingdom. (Image credit: Netflix)

Clichéd as it is to say, but a story is only as good as the characters involved in it. The Sandman has one of the most intriguing and thematically important casts of any graphic novel series, so finding the right actors to do justice to these beloved individuals was vital.

Understandably, then, the casting process was extensive. Netflix and company cast their net far and wide, with Holbrook previously confirming that it took eight months – and likely numerous auditions – before he was hired. Meanwhile, Sturridge (Irma Vep, Velvet Buzzsaw) eventually saw off an astonishing 1,000 other contenders for the role of Morpheus; his hiring aided by the fact he fully immersed himself in The Sandman's extensive lore and vast source material during and after his casting. Given the reverence that The Sandman is held in fans globally, the magnitude of leading a live-action Sandman series isn't lost on him, either.

"The thing I connected with most was the burden of responsibility," Sturridge says when asked about giving life to a character as complicated as Morpheus. "More than anything, the thing about Morpheus is this exquisite discipline in trying to maintain the collective unconsciousness of the universe. In some small way, I have the responsibility to the legion of fans who care so much about this, and I felt the burden of realizing their dreams of him."

If anyone has a problem with that, they have a problem with Neil Gaiman

Tom Sturridge, The Sandman lead actor

Sturridge and company were fully aware that Netflix's TV adaptation needed to be as faithful to the source material as possible. As Heinberg tells TechRadar, everyone involved in its production "had their eyes trained on satisfying what the fans craved, loved, and expected from a Sandman series". 

Gaiman's significant participation in all aspects of the show's production, coupled with the level of detail seen in various Sandman teaser trailers and behind-the-scenes sneak peeks, is sure to placate and even delight fans who may have been apprehensive about the latest attempt to bring The Sandman to life. From scenes and sequences pulled right out of the comic books' panels, to like-for-like reproductions of its most notable storylines, Netflix's The Sandman is as accurate an adaptation as you're likely to see. 

That extends to how the series' characters are portrayed, too. Death, so often presented as a concept to fear and rail against, is characterized as a kinder, wiser, and gentle individual in The Sandman; character traits that have been carried over into the TV show. As the older sibling of Morpheus, she's well placed to dish out advice – and the odd dose of realism and honesty – when necessary. For Kirby Howell-Baptiste, who plays Death, the character's human-like persona, among other subversive elements, are what set The Sandman apart from its contemporaries.

Lucifer stands over Morpheus in her throne room in Hell in Netflix's The Sandman

Lucifer and Morpheus don't see eye to eye in The Sandman. (Image credit: Netflix)

"What's brilliant about Neil's writing is that, while it's thematically dark, there's also this real light," Howell-Baptiste says. "He poses the question of 'When we all inevitably have to go, who would you want to usher you from this world into the next?', and that you'd hope it was someone comforting, gentle, and friendly. That's what's so beautiful about this character – she's called Death but she's a very hopeful individual."

Fans of the Lucifer TV show – which originally aired on Fox before ironically migrating to Netflix – are likely aware that Tom Ellis' live-action version is based on the Lucifer depicted in the comic series. Ellis' Lucifer, though, is a marked departure from how they're presented in the graphic novels – a fact that allows Game of Thrones alumnus Gwendoline Christie, who plays Lucifer in this project, to portray the character as they're illustrated in the comics.

"Increasingly, I find it isn't creatively useful for me to pay attention to the outside," Christie muses when TechRadar asks if she looked to Ellis' iteration for inspiration. "Alan and Neil told me that they'd absolutely be keeping this series faithful to the comics, which gave me a lot of faith. So I went back to the source material, and I focused on the script and my co-collaborators, and worked out what they inspired in me. If you're going to make a series like this, a show based on a fully formed vision, it needs to channel the essence of what came before and also feel fresh."

Reflecting the wider world

Lucienne sits in her library chair, staring at Michael the Raven off camera, in Netflix's The Sandman

Vivienne Acheampong's Lucienne is one of many characters who have been gender swapped for The Sandman's TV show. (Image credit: Netflix/Laurence Cendrowicz)

That "freshness" that Christie alludes to are the creative deviations taken to modernize The Sandman for today's audiences. Subtle tweaks have been made, for instance, to subplots containing DC comic characters that Netflix doesn't have the rights to, meaning they've been reworked or removed entirely.

It's the non-traditional casting of Acheampong, Christie, Howell-Baptiste, and Jenna Coleman that's the biggest departure from the source material. Depicted as males in the comics, Acheampong's Lucienne, Christie's Lucifer, and Coleman's Johanna Constantine have been gender swapped for Netflix's adaptation. Meanwhile, Howell-Baptiste's Death – a white character in the graphic novels – is Black in the TV show. As Heinberg notes, The Sandman was "leagues ahead of everybody in the late 80s" when it came to diversity and representation in the comic book space, but admits Gaiman "wanted to make some changes" to make the series "as inclusive as possible".

Disappointingly, not everyone agrees with that sentiment. In June 2021, just hours after the quartet's casting announcements were made, a small and toxic section of The Sandman fanbase lambasted these changes – Gaiman clapping back on social media that he gave "zero f**ks" what those so-called fans thought. For Sturridge, that defense is the sign of a creator whose passion for his most iconic works not only continues to shine through, but also as a person who wants to better reflect the world around him.

It needs to channel the essence of what came before and also feel fresh

Gwendoline Christie, The Sandman actor

"He didn't sign off on it – he wrote it, he created it," Sturridge says. "He was a fundamental protagonist in its making. He told us that we have the opportunity to work on the thing that's most important to him. He asked himself questions like 'What would I do differently?' or 'What mistakes did I make?' or 'What can I change?'. This is what he chose to do; how he chose to tell it. If anyone has a problem with that, they have a problem with Neil Gaiman."

Morpheus tries to use his powers to rebuild his castle in the Dream Dimension in Netflix's The Sandman

Build it, and they will come. (Image credit: Netflix)

It's unclear if more seasons of The Sandman will be greenlit. Sure, there's plenty of source material left to draw upon and, as season 1's ending and comics tease, there are more problems for Morpheus to contend with. But, unless the series captures the imagination of viewers – just like the comics have done since 1989 – Netflix won't hesitate to pull the plug. After all, it's done likewise with other big-budget productions, such as its live-action Cowboy Bebop TV adaptation and popular shows including First Kill.

Regardless what the future holds for Netflix's adaptation, the fact that Gaiman's dream of a live-action Sandman project has been realized is something to admire. The fact that it's been developed by long-time fans of Gaiman's seminal works, too, is indicative of the love, care, and attention that's gone into it. Goyer and Heinberg read the comics when they were initially released in the 80s. Christie, another super fan, says The Sandman comics are "outstanding, extraordinary, and revolutionary pieces of work". Even Sturridge, a latecomer to the franchise, is now a Sandman loyalist.

It may have taken a long time to materialize, but Gaiman takes solace and pride from what Netflix's adaptation is: an authentic, fan-led TV project that achieves what he always wanted from a live-action Sandman production. For the celebrate author, it really is a dream come true.

"At the end of it, we got to look at those 10 episodes and say 'Whatever we've done, whatever the world thinks of this, we've made a Sandman that we love and we're proud of'. It feels like Sandman and it's on TV. We've done our best we can, and now we get to take it to the world – and that's the exciting bit."

The Sandman launches exclusively on Netflix on Friday, August 5.

Senior Entertainment Reporter

As TechRadar's senior entertainment reporter, Tom covers all of the latest movies, TV shows, and streaming service news that you need to know about. You'll regularly find him writing about the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Star Wars, Netflix, Prime Video, Disney Plus, and many other topics of interest.

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