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    Tom Sturridge as the Lord of Dreams in The Sandman

    Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman Makes the Leap from Page to Screen

    All myths lose something in their retellings, but they also become something new.

    By Grant Macaskill

    October 13, 2022

    Death is no skeletal grim reaper, but a joyful young woman. Warmth radiates from her smile. She takes the deceased by the hand and with gentleness and compassion ushers them into her realm. She cherishes joy in the simple things of life, like the gift of an apple to be enjoyed along the way. She does not negate life; she affirms it. Around her neck Death wears an ankh, the Egyptian symbol of life that looks like a cross, but with a circle on top.

    At least, that is what Death looks like in the long-awaited Netflix adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s groundbreaking comic series The Sandman. This surprising portrayal of Death, more often personified as an austere faceless figure with hood and scythe, is typical of Gaiman, who is famous for his modulation of mythic and religious themes in storytelling. Indeed, in this adaptation, Gaiman, himself one of the show runners, allows his own myth to be modified for the screen, with changes to characters, narrative, and occasionally aesthetic. And yet, while there is a transgressiveness to the way Gaiman adapts, alludes to, and sometimes changes both his own and more ancient themes and characters, the series stays faithful to the perennial questions of human nature it initially engaged: hope, redemption, even death.

    Many of the reviews of The Sandman, Season 1 (Netflix, 2022) note just how long it has taken for a live-action adaptation of the comics to reach the screen. The original comics, released in monthly installments and then as a series of graphic novels (both under the DC imprint Vertigo and now under its Black Label), ran from 1989–1996 and have been both popular and influential, winning multiple awards, and sitting on bestseller lists for long stretches of time. The series is widely cited alongside works like Watchmen and Maus as a work of intellectual and cultural importance, as significant as any work of twentieth-century literature. Norman Mailer famously described the series as “a comic strip for intellectuals.” Yet, despite the obvious case to be made for a live-action adaptation, built on the devoted fanbase and critical praise associated with the source material, it is only in 2022 that one has finally reached the screen, and the screen in question is the smaller one.

    This is a good thing.

    The Sandman is a long and complex story, or even a blending of multiple stories, crisscrossing generations and spanning, well, eternity. Let me attempt a summary of its principal narrative strands: the Sandman is the Lord of Dreams. He goes by many names, including Dream, but is most often (in this series) called Morpheus. He is one member of a family known as the Endless, each of them projections and embodiments of human experience: Dream, Destruction, Destiny, Desire, Despair, Delirium (who was once Delight, but Delight is not a stable thing and becomes Delirium), and, of course, Death. The Endless serve humanity by regulating their various experiences and are, as such, necessary. But the Endless are also complicated, not easily located within our categories of good and bad. The relationships within the Endless family are not entirely straightforward, and their purposes sometimes come into clash; after all, the various parts of human identity are often in conflict within us. The main arc of this season involves Dream’s lengthy imprisonment at the hands of the magician, Roderick Burgess, and then his efforts to recover his stolen tools (a bag of sand, a helm and a ruby) and rectify all that has gone wrong while he has been absent from his realm.

    Tom Sturridge as the Lord of Dreams in The Sandman

    Tom Sturridge as the Lord of Dreams in The Sandman Netflix

    For all its scale, this is an intimate story; it is about the cosmos, but it is also about the little things that live, dream, and die within it. In The View from the Cheap Seats, Gaiman writes that “If Sandman was about one thing, it was about the act of storytelling, and the, possibly, redemptive nature of stories. But then, it is hard for a two-thousand-page story to be about just one thing.” Had any of the proposed movie adaptations come to fruition, the essential complexity of the material would have been simplified to accommodate the time constraints of a cinema release; the need to reduce it to “one thing” that could be easily marketed and trailered would have been impossible to resist. However, with the production values of television now comparable to those of movies, an adaptation can finally be realized that preserves the scale and vision of the source material in a way that does justice to its complexity. On the smaller screen (and, of course, TV screens these days can be huge), and with the benefits of a longer running time, the epic can take its time to unfold, its intimacy preserved, its weirdness maintained.

    A good deal has changed from the original material, though there are some individual frames that are lifted with photographic fidelity from the comics. It is to the credit of the whole production team, but especially to the casting department, that all the characters feel true to their original equivalents while bringing new life to the characters as well. Some characters have changed color, some have changed gender, some have changed both. Tom Sturridge (Morpheus) is the most obviously “faithful” piece of casting: he is thin and pale and delivers his lines as if they were white text on a black background (this will mean something to devoted fans of the series), bringing a sense of incomprehensible age to a figure who looks so young. Boyd Holbrook, likewise, is so perfectly cast as the Corinthian, a nightmare that escapes the dreaming and wreaks havoc on the waking world, that one wonders whether he somehow grinned for the artists of The Dolls House some thirty years ago. David Thewlis conveys something of the aesthetic of John Dee, while also investing him with a humanity far richer and gentler than the comic ever conveyed, which makes his actions even more disturbing. The casting decisions that depart from the aesthetic particularities of the comics, meanwhile, succeed in maintaining the qualities of the characters portrayed, not only in the case of Kirby Powell-Baptiste as Death, but also Vivienne Acheampong as Lucien (now Luciénne), the Librarian of the Dreaming, who serves to ground the series at key points. There is also some brilliant voice-work by Patton Oswald, as the raven Matthew, and Mark Hamill, as Mervyn, the pumpkin-headed, Jungian scarecrow.

    The Sandman is a work of mythology, drawing elements from religious traditions, particularly Jewish and Christian ones, but also from Egyptian, Greek, Japanese and Norse myths, turning these into something new-but-old. Gaiman has compared his use of myths and religious themes to a kind of composting: ideas are broken down and become something freshly nutritious, from which new flowers grow. Gaiman is devoted to the belief that myths can communicate something of the truth. Paraphrasing G. K. Chesterton, one of his great intellectual influences, Gaiman writes: “Fairy tales, as G. K. Chesterton once pointed out, are not true. They are more than true. Not because they tell us that dragons exist, but because they tell us that dragons can be defeated.” In this first season alone, we encounter Cain and Abel, the protological brothers, whose story of resentment and murder plays out over and over again in the Dreaming; we visit Hell (visualized much more according to the literary portrayals of Dante and Milton and the graphic illustrations of the Divine Comedy by Doré than through any scriptural traditions) and encounter Lucifer, the most powerful of being apart from the Creator, and Azazel. Assuming that subsequent seasons are made (and given the massive popularity the adaptation has already enjoyed, it is hard to imagine that they will not be), we will encounter Eve, Bast, Odin, Thor, Loki, and some fairies, among others. Gaiman has written that the series “should have been an inedible mess, and instead (to keep the cooking metaphor) turned out to be pretty good gumbo … my faith in myth as something alive and workable was upheld.”

    For all its scale, this is an intimate story; it is about the cosmos, but it is also about the little things that live, dream, and die within it.

    Gaiman’s willingness to rework and reimagine the religious and mythical material that he draws upon is founded upon a potent respect for that material, a reverence even. But it is a reverence that is attentive to the essential plasticity and vitality of the traditions on which he draws. In my research as a biblical scholar, I have written elsewhere that one of the characteristics of ancient Jewish tradition was its capacity to allow multiple stories of Israel and multiple versions of the same story to circulate alongside each other. Even within the Hebrew Bible, we have different accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 and different versions of the stories of the kings (the books of Samuel and of Kings and of Chronicles). The early church canonized a fourfold gospel and generally rejected attempts to harmonize the accounts into one definitive version. Non and post-biblical Jewish and Christian literary, visual, material, and ritual traditions are incredibly rich and diverse, often entangled with each other and with surrounding cultures, frequently assimilating and occasionally subverting the myths they encounter among their neighbors, near and remote.

    For viewers who come to the Sandman from within any particular tradition (say Judaism or Christianity), this is important to acknowledge, because an assumption about the fixedness and sacredness of certain concepts within our heritage can make it difficult to accept their fresh plasticity in this series. The representation of Lucifer, for example, will be considered unacceptable by many, along with the presentation of Hell itself; words like “blasphemy” are thrown around with alarming ease by some, often labelling what has come to be enshrined only within modern Christian culture as “biblical.” It is good to remember that traditions about Satan exhibit significant development within the Bible, and that much of what we consider to be “traditional” reflects post-biblical thought, often seeking to synthesize the biblical stories with later doctrines, and also sometimes reflecting popular storytelling of the time. If we come to the material with this kind of generosity, we will find a huge amount that resonates with Christian theological reflection, even beyond the presence of figures from biblical traditions. In this season, there are two such themes of note: hope and redemption.

    The theme of hope binds two of the episodes together closely, both in ways that turn on the figural significance of Dream himself. In “A Hope in Hell,” Morpheus must visit Lucifer’s kingdom to recover his helm. The climax of that episode involves a contest of wits called Reality, a meta-conceptual version of “rock, paper, scissors” in which the contestants invoke hierarchies and subversions of power: a dire wolf is brought down by a mounted hunter, in turn brought down by a serpent, in turn taken by a raptor, in turn poisoned by a bacterium . . . and so on. Lucifer strikes the ultimate blow: “I am anti-life, the beast of judgement, the dark at the end of everything. What will you be then, Dream-Lord.” But Dream, inspired by the encouragement and belief of his raven, Matthew, asserts the essential thing of life that he embodies, the thing that cannot be killed, that defies even anti-life: “I am hope.”

    The symbolism is potent and complex. Hope sustains life, but the dreams that fuel it are the very essence of Hell’s torturous power: the capacity to dream of heaven. (Those who know of Bane’s speech to the imprisoned Bruce Wayne in The Dark Knight Rises will recognize echoes here). In the following episode, “24/7” (already being celebrated as one of the most powerful and disturbing pieces of TV ever made), John Dee – whose mother stole the ruby from Roderick Burgess and lied to Dee about his own parentage – is driven by a pathological need for truth and the abolition of all falsehood, including dreams. Over the course of 24 hours, Dee uses the ruby to remove the dreams, and with these dreams the hope, of the staff and patrons of a diner. Without the redemptive power of hope, they become monstrous, self-harming and torturing each other in the most horrific of ways. Morpheus shows Dee the truth: that hopes and dreams are the key to goodness, that the possibility of imagining a better world and straining towards it are necessary if the world is ever to be saved.

    That insight also becomes the basis for the second theme: redemption. Gaiman resists the simple representation of the monster as a bad thing. Monsters are what emerge from the corruption and erosion of hope, and hope is vital for their repair. John Dee’s appalling story is developed with an incredible sympathy, made possible by the sheer tenderness with which David Thewlis embodies the character. The eventual atrocity of his actions cannot be redeemed, but the actions themselves can be comprehended according to the consequences and effects of other people’s choices and their significance for the shaping of Dee’s agency. The possibility that Dee himself can be redeemed remains open; as with so much in the series, the easy climax of a slain antagonist is disdained, and a more complicated counter-climax is embraced. In the second half of the season, this plays itself out even in the case of the Corinthian (whose own story will be redeemed in surprising ways in due course). As with Dee’s crimes, the shocking evil perpetrated along the way is not downplayed – and let this stand as a warning to potential viewers that they can expect to see some profoundly disturbing scenes – but the ease with which its blame is dissociated from the societal factors that might generate it is challenged. As a nightmare, the Corinthian was made with a purpose, to show something cautionary to the dreamer, and his flawed performance of this does indeed show the viewer how despair can inspire the worst kinds of crime and corruption, a cult of killing. But the possibility of redemption, even for the darkest and most destructive of characters, is left open; hope persists.

    Gaiman has compared his use of myths and religious themes to a kind of composting: ideas are broken down and become something freshly nutritious, from which new flowers grow.

    Of course, there is a third theme that runs through and around these two: Death. The series plays with the perennial theme of what happens when people seek to refuse the necessity of death: Burgess captures Dream by mistake, intending to capture his sibling, because he wants to bring back his lost son; Hob Gadling is given eternal life by Dream, living out many human lifetimes in a complicated counterpoint to Dream’s own narrative, wonderful and terrible by turns. Dream himself is defined by his relationship to his sister. In many ways, the series is about Death as much as it is about Dream.

    The episode in which we meet Death, “The Sound of her Wings,” is moved from its original location in the series in New York to England. For fans of the comics, something is lost from the iconography: Washington Square Park (surrounded, of course, with monuments to the dead) is so important to the original story that it is jarring not to see it represented here. But the shift in location gives an airiness to the episode that is emotionally powerful, perhaps because Death is so vividly and organically contextualized by the spaces of natural life and light; trees, parks, and ponds. We see moments of death associated with age, that seem well-earned yet still come, in the words of one aged Jew, “so soon”; we see moments of death in youth and infancy; we see the bereavement of a parent, of a spouse. We see deaths that make a certain sense and deaths that are senseless. We see peaceful deaths and violent deaths. Each death is treated with reverence, accompanied by the sound of mighty wings; each death is sanctified by Death’s presence. But Death’s work is hard, and her burden is real.

    But not all characters can accept death’s gift with equanimity. The realms of Dream and Death intersect in the story of Lyta Hall, which is modified in the adaptation. Lyta’s husband, Hector, has died, but she visits him in the dream world, with the walls between the dreaming and waking worlds made permeable by Rose Walker, the Vortex. That allows something to happen that should not be possible: Lyta becomes pregnant with Hector’s child, Daniel. As a product of the Dreaming, Morpheus lays claim to Daniel, an act which will set in motion the events that will run through the following seasons. This event results from the machinations of Desire, a member of the Endless who cannot be reduced to the binary of male and female (and is played by the non-binary actor, Mason Alexander Park): perpetually jealous, Desire’s role in seeking their brother’s downfall will also take form with a child linked to the Dreaming. Even the Endless, the eternal projections and rulers of human experience, manifest the pettiness of human instincts.

    All myths lose something in their retellings, but they also become something new. Fans may wish that this or that element had been maintained from the comic, but the comics will always have their own identity and distinctive witness to the story of Dream of the Endless. The developments represented by the TV adaptation do not jeopardize these but complement them. The same is true of other comics, like Batman, where each adaptation is more than just a translation from one medium to another: it is also a genuine renewal, as the relevance of the material to the times in which we live is reasserted and re-envisioned. For stories about dreams and despair, desire and delirium, destiny, destruction and death, the potential for such Endless renewing is obvious. The world changes around us, generations come and go, with each existing in an environment scarcely recognizable to those who have inhabited its predecessors, but people remain persistently human. We continue to need symbols and stories that give us hope, like the ankh that Death wears, a pre-Christian symbol, assimilated to the cross in the iconography and material culture of Coptic Christianity: a symbol of death that is truly the symbol of life.

    Contributed By GrantMacaskill

    Grant Macaskill (PhD, University of St Andrews, 2005) is the Kirby Laing Chair of New Testament Exegesis at the University of Aberdeen, having previously taught at the University of St Andrews. Among other works, he is the author of Union with Christ in the New Testament (Oxford University Press, 2013), The New Testament and Intellectual Humility (Oxford University Press, 2019) and Autism and the Church: Bible, Theology and Community (Baylor University Press, 2019).