One of the most polarising pop culture discourses is the unyielding tug of war between film and literature fanatics concerning books receiving film adaptations. You don’t have to look beyond the fandoms of the Wizarding world, the DC and Marvel universes, The Witcher, You, The Discovery of Witches, 50 Shades of Grey, and the Hlomu series to see this. When media outlets announce that a literary body of work is being brought to life via adaptation, whether as a movie or series, an almost unanimous scepticism from cult followers and purists threatens to crash Twitter.
From the controversial reception of The Wife to the desperate attempt at humanising the devil in Lucifer, undertaking the task of creating a film adaptation can do either one of two things to you. It could elevate you to Christoper Nolan status, who directed the classic Dark Knight Trilogy or see you become another Taika Waititi, who disappointed the MCU (and its source material, the comics) with his botched adaptation of Thor: Love and Thunder.
With that said, I found it fitting to explore and prematurely hail Netflix’s The Sandman as one of the elusive comic adaptation success stories. It’s National Comic Book Day today in the US; however, I will spearhead the effort to rebrand it to International Comic Book Day in favour of my die-hard global comic community contemporaries. And also because I need an excuse to dissect why The Sandman’s adaptation is so crucial right now.
With the game-changing success that streaming and the MCU have created, the industry has inadvertently given us an era of adaptations of already successful or acclaimed works. Look at the countless remakes, reboots, and sequels that have left the mainstream audience jaded. This is why a Neil Gaiman adaptation sparked so much interest; he is a celebrated writer of Hugo-winning speculative fiction, graphic novels, and comics. His adaptations have always strayed toward the ambiguous, the weird, and the dark (without being realistic and gritty, as we have so often associated with the DC universe, to which Neil Gaiman is a notable contributor). Look no further than Coraline as an example, a brilliant book only matched by its equally potent adaptation.
The Sandman is a faithful comic-to-screen adaptation, pulling a large portion of the content straight from the parent source. Neil Gaiman was an integral part of the creative team in bringing this to life, and it shows.
One of the two significant differences between this adaptation and Fantastic Beasts (which also had its author, J.K. Rowling, as head of the screenplay and executive producer) is the incredible screenplay writing and the team Neil surrounded himself with to bring this to life. It is truly a labour of love and care. The second difference is that Fantastic Beasts was adapted in book style, not as a screenplay, a method which has come under criticism throughout the series.
The Sandman stands alone and builds this incredible visual world. Even for those that may not know that this is a comic book adaptation, the characters will feel truly fleshed out. The team used gender-swapping not only to create a disconnect between Neil’s other Netflix hit, Lucifer but also to show the best portrayal of godlike entities not tied to our societal norms. The depiction of Desire as a gender-fluid entity; Death as a caring Black woman; Hell being a place where you bring your own fire; Dream’s love interest being a Black woman in which he appears to her as a Black man; the Corinthian being queer, Constantine being not only gender-swapped but accompanied with a change of pronunciation of her name; and, of course, the incredible Gwendoline Christie’s portrayal as a gender-swapped Lucifer are the small ways that shape this fantastic world. Moreover, these subtle changes accent how timeless the characters are – only genius writing could achieve that effect.
My favourite part was the resolution of the primary conflict mid-season, showing the irony of how small human conflicts affected the grand scheme of things. It was interesting to see how the rest of the story was about seeing how these earlier events had a profound effect on Dream, one he hadn’t expected at all.
The Sandman proves that, even with the mainstream success of a more traditional approach to comic book story adaptations, there still is a big fan base for the obscure. Especially the strange that lean heavily on the source material made in their creator’s image. The Sandman shows that there is a place for unique storylines.
As Neil is currently campaigning for a second season of the Netflix hit, the most important takeaway from the show’s success is that comic books aren’t without their complexities. Those complexities, the complicated characters and whatnot, can be enjoyed by audiences of any kind. They are pieces of art worthy of respect, and they, too, are timeless heirlooms to be cherished over a lifetime.
Alas, friends, I must leave you with this jarring question, will Netflix set itself apart from its competitors by doing the near impossible, mastering the art of comic adaptations? It remains yet to be seen, and I, for one, will binge my way to the answer!
A splendid *International Comic Book Day to you all. May the imagination be with you.