Neil Gaiman’s comic book The Sandman isn’t quite in the canon of unadaptable literature, but converting it from page to screen is not a task for the fainthearted. That is why it’s so exciting for long-term fans that the first morsels of news about Netflix’s television version paint a picture of a production eager to be as forward-thinking as the original.
The DC Comics series, which ran to 75 issues in the early 1990s (and later collected into 10 graphic novels), was groundbreaking for a variety of reasons.
It popularised the concept of the “trade paperback”, the DVD boxset of the comics world, making it possible to write a long-running series with years of character growth without every issue having to stand alone for new readers. The Sandman, along with a handful of other titles that came out in the late 1980s including Maus, Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns, helped to bury the reputation of the comic as an inherently juvenile distraction. Halfway through its run, it helped to launch Vertigo, DC Comics’ influential adult imprint, from which came Preacher, Y: The Last Man and Lucifer (now a Fox TV show and originally a Sandman spinoff).
Even its release schedule – larger arcs focusing on the main narrative followed by one-shot standalone chapters expanding the world and characters – became the template for the series that would follow.
Comics don’t win huge, passionate fanbases by being influential, of course. Where Sandman succeeded was in pulling together its messy, multifaceted influences to create a series that had something for everyone, but with a solid core throughout.
Originally set in the DC universe – one early issue even features a cameo from the Justice League – Sandman follows Dream, the personification of, well, that. But it also follows an ever growing cast of characters whose lives are shaped by their interaction with the lead, from humans whose messy lives are thrown awry to mythological figures who can hold their own against even the fundamental forces of nature.
It is the casting of those figures that sparked such excitement last week. Yes, Tom Sturridge, the relative unknown who will play Dream himself, looks the part, and Boyd Holbrook, who plays the first arc’s primary antagonist, the Corinthian, has already shown he can do creepy and sinister as the villain in 2017’s Logan.
But more promising is where the show has shown a willingness to reimagine what makes the original series tick, in a way that suggests we can hope for more than just filming the panels on the page.
Vivienne Acheampong only has a few credits to her name, in the recent adaptation of The Witches and the BBC Three sketch show Famalam, but nowhere do they suggest that her casting as Lucien – now Lucienne – Dream’s head librarian, is going to be a straight adaptation. A less bold version of the text would have just cast Anthony Head, surfed the attention from the Buffy fandom, and stopped thinking. A less bold adaptation wouldn’t do Sandman justice.
Or take Cain and Abel. Yes, the biblical figures – the first murderer, and the first victim – but their route to the world of Sandman was less direct than it seems. The brothers were the “hosts” of DC Comics’ long-running Horror anthologies the House of Mystery and the House of Secrets, before they were revived by Alan Moore in his Swamp Thing run, and adopted by Gaiman. Cain, an abusive, pompous, arrogant figure, is eternally hurling abuse at the stuttering, snivelling Abel, and their arguments always, inevitably, result in murder. Yet an issue, page or panel later, Abel is alive again.
Like so much of the world of Dream, the characters are archetypes, exaggerated examples of the concept they represent. Although it is dark humour, the exaggeration – and ultimate lack of consequences – can’t help but add a funny edge to the whole thing. Even so, the casting of Sanjeev Bhaskar and Asim Chaudhry is inspired. Each would appear to be cast against type, with Bhaskar, best known as the loveably brattish host of The Kumars at No. 42, and a likeable detective in Unforgotten, taking on a sinister air, while Chaudhry, whose comic creation Chabuddy G is a brash serial (failed) entrepreneur, needs to be the beta male – no pun intended.
Then there’s Lucifer. Again, literally the devil, and in Sandman, a complex figure, reminiscent more of Paradise Lost than the horned-and-goat-legged figure of popular culture. Lucifer begins as something of an antagonist but by the end of the series, is more an equal to Dream – to the point where the spinoff series he earned, written by Mike Carey, ran as long as Sandman itself.
In some ways, then, the casting of Gwendoline Christie, Game of Thrones’ Brienne of Tarth, is obvious in hindsight. Physically imposing, powerfully yet softly spoken, Christie can pull off perfectly the “talk quietly and carry a big stick” mentality favoured by the lord of hell. And, not to get horny on main, but Lucifer is fairly firmly presented as oozing sex appeal, and you don’t have to spend long browsing Christie’s name on Tumblr to get a sense of how many others share my view that she can pull that off too.
There is a lot more to an adaptation than a cast list, of course. But as a first sign of what to expect, it doesn’t get better than this.