by Stewart Hotston
Dream has arrived. The highly anticipated adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s epochal graphic novel series landed on Netflix just a short while ago. It is season 1 – covering the first part of the series and leaving enough room for several more seasons to follow if, when, it is a success.
The question is, what does The Sandman bring to us now? For a story that was so formative for so many, coming as it did at what could be considered a key point in genre history, can it still speak to us today?
My timeline has been full of readers of a certain age being extremely excited (and nervous) about this show. For many of them the graphic novels were not just great but life changing.
Dream, the ultimate expression of alienation from and fascination with what it means to be. There is also the deepest sense that The Sandman arrived into a world at the tail end of a century that had seen two devastating World Wars, a near half century long Cold War as well as an astonishing number of other events whose depressing import was to gut the idea of modernity and usher in the truth that meaning was transitory.
The arc of progress was a lot slower than anyone had hoped.
One suspects that when Dream was freed from his imprisonment in the comics it built on the hope that the Cold War was finally ending; that an era was ending. You could even argue that with Dream’s return there is that same sense of reorientation around hope that Glasnost and Perestroika brought with them before late stage laissez faire capitalism fucked it all up.
I watched the series wondering what would be different if it were written today and, honestly, I could see Dream having been imprisoned as per the story right through to the present day. The hope that blossomed as the Berlin Wall fell and as Nelson Mandela was freed? I can find precious little sign of it in my children’s generation. For them, Dream comes to the screen talking their language – talking about anxiety and fear and the terror of discovering the threats arrayed against us are beyond our control.
Sure, pandemics and climate change are absent, but this is a fantasy story about world ending threats that exist primarily because we refuse to dream of hope and love and acceptance. If there’s one existential threat my children express loudly? It’s not that they’ll be poorer than me or that their opportunities are fewer than mine were at their age (although I suspect we’ll have that conversation in the coming years), it’s that they feel powerless to match up to the challenges they see before them. As if the world into which they’ve awakened as adults is one in which they do not know how to be.
Dream is the exemplar of this, and the series follows both his alienation but also the reclamation of his identity. It is this second piece I think is most relevant for now, that resonates most deeply. After being held captive for more than a century (his actual awakening date is present day which is somewhat after the date he awakens in the source material), Dream is not simply disoriented, he is missing a large part of what gives him his identity. More than that, like any sleeper waking, he discovers the world has continued in his absence and much of what he thought he knew no longer holds.
This sense of a man waking bleary-eyed and how we experience that alongside him creates an experience that is fast and frantic one moment and then disconnected and dream-like the next. It worked for me because it feels like those moments after waking when we are not quite all there in ourselves but we’re still in the world and aware of it. It’s a clever piece of construction wherein the viewer experiences Dream’s sense of dislocation directly not simply through his experience but in how the show it literally constructed.
In reclaiming his lost artefacts you get the sense that he is not just becoming himself once again, he is ‘waking’ into the world.
You could criticise the show for this approach to pacing, in particular its overall arc for the season, but I think that’s to miss the point. Dream flits in and out of the stories on the screen and they are, largely, about people and their hopes and fears and the dangers they run from and the goals of which they dream.
The Sandman is only the name of the show – in the ways that matter we see a story about several different people and how they wrestle with love, hope, loss and new life. Through this Dream adjusts to the world he finds himself in and although the show is sumptuous and glorious to watch, it’s the human elements which make it shine.
When focusing on desire and truth, on fear and being The Sandman speaks right to the world in which we find ourselves. It might even be speaking in ways we find it hard to accept – challenging our legacy of desiring there to be a single hero, of there needing to be a simple story.
Much of this is there explicitly in the source material but the adaptation has taken that origin and subtly updated it, not simply in the much-discussed casting decisions, but also in terms of how it sees its own place in the cultural landscape.
Most of the changes to the source material are around smoothing out the structure of the graphic novel for television (such as the re-ordering or Hob’s story or removing all references to the DC universe including from character origins).
The biggest notable change is in John Dee (played by David Thewlis) who is much more human than in the source. Together with his mother we now have a story centring these two characters that feels coherent and contemporary. John Dee was originally an evil megalomaniac, an idea which would have felt pretty flat in today’s landscape. Instead we have a man desperately trying to make sense of a world which has left him traumatised and unable to navigate it without distress. We have his mother, a woman who wanted a life of her own, with agency and security and chose to do what she needed to do in order to obtain that. Both these characters are sympathetic in a way they weren’t in the source and, for me, they hold much of the series together, their attempts to live the lives they want entirely understandable.
Although, unlike many, The Sandman graphic novels have aged relatively well, these changes reflect what worked in the original and a thoughtful approach to updating what seems, at the very least, out of kilter today.
Gaiman and the other writers – notably David Goyer, Catherine Smyth-McMullen, Vanessa Benton and Allan Heinberg have done a really smart job in taking what is arguably the weakest part of Dream’s story and making it into something extremely watchable and that continues to resonate decades later.
What’s interesting is that we have what is essentially a story that appears to be in two parts. The first is Dream’s imprisonment and his subsequent release and its aftermath. The second is Dream’s reorientation to the world as he finds it after more than one hundred years of confinement.
The two halves of the show have very different tones, the first being a mythic introduction to the world. The second is smaller, focused, more dramatic but in the nature of its characters rather than its plot.
I see this crossing of genre boundaries from the fantasy to the literary being a challenge for many viewers. Not enough Dream, not enough fantasy or ‘plot’ for some. Not enough character work, too much ‘plot’ for others. You can have an episode set entirely in a diner that is a literary grotesque exploring desire, truth and the secrets we all hide even from ourselves, but you also get baby gargoyles whose names must begin with the letter G and wizard battles between the devil and Dream. There are competing requirements on both sides of that fence. Yet for me this desire to tell its story on its own terms sums up the piecemeal nature of stories.
The greatest stories don’t tell us what we already knew. They don’t repeat the fantasies we tell ourselves in order to feel good about ourselves or to help us avoid the topics we don’t want to discuss. For me at least, the greatest stories are uncomfortable, lane changing works of art which do their best to bring us along with them, but which will, if we cannot or will not follow them, still dance to their own tunes.
When (men, largely) ask me why I read fiction, as if it’s a silly endeavour for the non-serious mind, I like to remind them that fiction is the place where we can talk about that which is too difficult to discuss in plain words, which is too hard or painful or embarrassing. Fiction is serious business.
For me The Sandman fits into this tradition perfectly – it is a fantasy dressed with dreams and gargoyles, demons and regretful sorcerers – but these are set dressing for the questions it wants to ask us. This is no bad thing – set dressing can ease us into the trickier elements of a story, it may even allow us to face challenging questions head on by configuring them less starkly in our encounter with them.
Certainly, tackling ideas around the mortality of children, generational trauma and abuse is never an easy task and couching these subjects within more fantastical elements can allow for their careful unpicking in a way simply showing them on screen may not permit.
Can we change if we want to? Can we grieve without it changing us even if we don’t want to? How do we handle loss and how do we remain human when the suffering we experience can rightly be expected to ruin us?
There is much more to this Sandman than an alienated goth going on a quest and then dealing with wayward staff. Our Sandman, the one we’re finally watching on screen, wants to ask us who we are and what we might be. It wants to ask us about our trauma and our hurt and our hopes. It wants, in the end, to suggest that in all the nebulous decisions we make and the overwhelming sense that we cannot change the world that, just perhaps, we can change the world as we find it.
I am here waiting for the announcement of a second season because there is a whole lot more to come and I, personally, can’t wait.
Rating? 8 grains of sleepy dust out of 10.