THE SANDMAN Review: Netflix's Stunning Adaptation Of Neil Gaiman's Masterwork Exceeds All Expectations

After years of failed big and small-screen attempts to adapt The Sandman, Netflix's take on Neil Gaiman's acclaimed comic series is finally here. Find out what we made of the show...

"The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision."

This is how Neil Gaiman once described The Sandman when asked to summarize his masterwork in under 25 words. It's a succinct, elegiac insight into the main character's arc, but like most things relating to this epic tale, the choice Morpheus makes is not quite so black and white.

The Sandman is an expansive, layered read with a wide range of characters and intertwining plotlines, but at its core, it is the story of an ancient, immortal being going through an existential crisis and coming to realize that even he is capable of evolving and adapting to the changing world around him.

Netflix's upcoming series never loses sight of this, which is partially what makes it such a staggeringly successful adaptation.

After several high-profile attempts to bring The Sandman to the screen (including a feature adaptation with Joseph Gordon-Levitt at the helm), it was beginning to look as if it simply wasn't meant to be, so there was a lot of excitement - and apprehension - when it was announced that Netflix would be taking charge of this series. The streamer does have a somewhat spotty track record, after all, so Sandman fans were understandably concerned.

Fortunately, our patience has been rewarded with a beautifully crafted fantasy drama series that's about as faithful to Gaiman's work as it's possible to be. In fact, our one significant criticism of The Sandman is that it may stick a little too closely to the source material at times.

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For the uninitiated, the story begins back in 1916, with black magician Roderick Burgess (Charles Dance) casting a spell to imprison Death and inadvertently capturing her younger brother, Dream, in her stead. A member of the immortal family known as The Endless, Morpheus (Tom Sturridge) refuses to communicate with his captor, remaining in his glass cell for over a century.

When Dream is finally set free, he sets about recovering his stolen tools of office (pouch, helm, ruby) by embarking on a quest that will take him from his home in The Dreaming to the gates of Hell itself. Meanwhile, a particularly nasty nightmare known as The Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) has been taking full advantage of his master's absence by wreaking havoc in the Waking World as a notorious serial killer.

There is a lot more to it, of course, but it's best not to reveal too much for those who don't know the story. If you have read the comics, you'll have a pretty good idea of what to expect, and Netflix's series mostly sticks to the same format of spinning a relatively self-contained tale in each episode, as Dream encounters various friends and foes while searching for his lost items and rebuilding his kingdom.

Most of the wider DC Comics connectivity has been discarded (for obvious reasons), so we don't get to see Morpheus meet Martian Manhunter or Mr. Miracle, and John Constantine is now Johanna Constantine (Jenna Coleman). Still, there are a few Easter Eggs in the later episodes which do suggest that the show is at least set in the same continuity (if that's even still a thing).

There are other, mostly cosmetic changes. The Endless all look more human, for example, as does the deranged John Dee (David Thewlis). But it's much easier to accept these otherworldly-looking beings walking around among us without a second glance on the page than it would have been on screen, so it's easy enough to understand why these alterations were made (that won't stop some people blowing a gasket, of course).

Standout episodes include "A Hope in Hell," which introduces Gwendoline Christie's imposing Lucifer Morningstar, "24 Hours," which adapts one of the most notoriously disturbing single issues in comics history (don't worry, the depravity is toned down considerably), and the stunning "The Sound of Her Wings."

This sixth instalment depicts the reunion between a forlorn Dream and his big sister, Death (a superb Kirby Howell-Baptiste), who takes her brother on her rounds as she visits those who are about to pass on. It's a near-perfect recreation of the comic, with one scene, in particular, sure to leave Sandman aficionados in emotional tatters. The episode doesn't end where issue #8 of the comic does, however, and the decision to include another fan-favorite encounter (no spoilers) is a stroke of genius.

The final four episodes adapt "The Doll's House" arc, and this is where things take a slight dip. It's an important story which introduces several vital characters such as Rose Walker (Kyo Ra), but after following Dream through various mystical realms for several episodes, it's a little jarring when Morpheus is all-but sidelined for a tale set primarily in the "real" world. Rose's search for her brother Jed is engaging enough, as is our little visit to the "Serial Convention," but Lyta Hall's (Razane Jammal) subplot is far less compelling, and when all the pieces ultimately move into place, the season finale does end up feeling a little anticlimactic.

Most of the characters are incredibly well-cast, but the success of this series was always going to rest on the shoulders of Tom Sturridge, and he is outstanding in the lead. Morpheus is a very difficult character to bring to life for a number of reasons, and while this first live-action interpretation is instantly more likable than his comic-book counterpart, the British actor perfectly captures Dream's initial aloofness and vengeful nature, before subtly allowing some warmth and compassion to creep in as the Dream Lord begins to comprehend the decision that lays ahead even before we have much of an inkling of what awaits him.

The last few episodes may not quite live up to what comes before, but the first season of The Sandman is a major triumph overall. It's taken us a while to get here, but Netflix's powerful, strange, surprisingly joyous adaptation of Neil Gaiman's "unfilmable" graphic novels should exceed even the most lofty of expectations. 

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