“I will show you terror in a handful of dust” was the tagline DC Comics used to introduce its readers to The Sandman in 1988. Like Swamp Thing before it, it was a reinvention of a relatively obscure DC character by an up-and-coming British talent – in this case, writer Neil Gaiman. Also like Swamp Thing, it was pitched as a horror title, but grew into so much more. The series became a massive success with readers outside the comic book marketplace and proved arty comics could work right alongside the superheroes.
Its ideas, scope, and characters are also perfect for television adaptation, but it took a long time for the rights-holders to make that realization. As Gaiman recalls, he was first asked about adapting The Sandman into a film in 1991 and – barring a long extension of the worldwide pandemic – a Sandman television series will finally debut on Netflix 30 years later.
Why did it take so long? Let’s consider everything we know about The Sandman television series and unravel the story of its long gestation.
[Updated on 9/25/21]
(Photo by DC Comics)
The Sandman tells the tale of Morpheus – a.k.a. Dream of the Endless – an impossibly old being who is also the living personification of dreams. He lives in a realm called, appropriately enough, The Dreaming, where he tends to the REM state of being all over the universe; of course, this means he spends a lot of time near Earth, courting gods, inspiring fools to become authors, and occasionally arousing waking terrors. As the series begins, in 1916, an exhausted Morpheus is captured by an immortality-seeking magus. He eventually escapes in 1989 and sets out to put his broken kingdom back in order.
From there, the series expands into a group of novels detailing Morpheus’s long-term plan to make up for past misdeeds and escape from his other confinement – which we won’t spoil as it is a key element of the series. In each major story, we also meet characters like Rose Walker, the immortal Hob Gadling, the Dreaming’s wisecracking janitor Mervyn Pumpkinhead, Matthew the Raven, the crafty Thessaly, and Lucifer Morningstar – all of whom are as fascinating as Morpheus himself.
We also learn about the troubles within Morpheus’ family, the Endless. Each is the personification of some essential concept – Destiny, Death, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium (formerly Delight) – with personalities to match. Well, except for Death and maybe one other, but that is another of the series’ great surprises. Though designed as a horror title at launch, the series ends as a grand exploration of myths, storytelling, and being true to oneself, beautifully rendered by artists like Sam Keith, Jill Thompson, P. Craig Russell, Charles Vess, and Mike Allred.
Naturally, it has been almost impossible for Hollywood to adapt it.
(Photo by Mike Marsland/WireImage)
Peters continued to develop the project with other writers. A 1998 draft by William Farmer (who received story credit on Jonah Hex) was leaked to Ain’t It Cool News – one of the site’s earliest big scoops. As AICN reported, the script reworked Morpheus into a slasher movie villain, set up a new protagonist, and recast Lucifer as Morpheus’ brother. The action-heavy plot also involved the then-upcoming turn of the millennium, which would’ve immediately dated the project had it gone forward. To read about it now, it sounds oddly similar to the eventual Constantine feature starring Keanu Reeves and the liberties it took with its source material. (Which many of us didn’t mind at all.)
Gaiman would remember it as “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read,” and told fans at a San Diego Comic-Con 2007 event that he would “rather see no Sandman movie made than a bad Sandman movie.” Reality seemed to take Gaiman’s advice as Peters’ project came to naught.
In 2014, a new version of the project emerged with producer David S. Goyer (The Dark Knight), actor-director-producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Gaiman, and writer Jack Thorne (His Dark Materials). Intended to be separate from the emerging universe of the DC films, The Sandman was to be released by New Line Cinema under the Vertigo label seen at the start of V for Vendetta. It was hoped the film would inspire several sequels and, perhaps, a Harry Potter–sized franchise. In March 2016, Eric Heisserer (Arrival) signed on to rewrite Thorne’s draft, but soon after, Gordon-Levitt left the project citing creative differences – granted, it was never clear if he was going to play the title role or just serve as a producer. Heisserer turned in his script in November of that year, but also left the production, suggesting The Sandman should be an HBO series.
As it happens, an attempt to do just that also occurred.
Logan’s James Mangold pitched a Sandman series to HBO sometime in 2010. It was not successful, obviously, but it led to Warner Bros. Television developing a Sandman TV show concurrently with the film. Supernatural’s Eric Kripke pitched a concept, but Gaiman later revealed it wasn’t quite right. And with the Goyer production looking like it was going to happen, WBTV backed off the show.
Which only goes to show how much timing matters. The Sandman could never be a film series, and television was simply not prepared for it until the streaming age, when things finally came together.
(Photo by Priscilla Grant/Everett Collection)
In June 2019, Netflix announced it was developing The Sandman as a television series. Wonder Woman screenwriter Allan Heinberg (pictured above with The Catch actress Sonya Walger) will serve as the showrunner and Gaiman as a producer. When asked on Twitter about his level of involvement in the series, the whimsical author said, “Much more than American Gods. Less than Good Omens.”
The former is the troubled Starz adaptation of his 2001 novel – known more for drama behind the scenes than what’s going on onscreen – the latter is the Amazon series based on the novel he co-wrote with the late Terry Pratchett. Gaiman ultimately served as that program’s showrunner and is apparently in no hurry to take on that amount of responsibility again. Goyer is still on board as a producer and all three worked on the pilot script. Also, unlike previous attempts to bring The Sandman to the screen, the show has an 11-episode commitment.
(Photo by Netflix)
Like most of the various would-be Sandman adaptations, the first season will adapt “Preludes & Nocturnes,” and, according to Gaiman, “a little bit more.” We assume this means at least one episode will directly adapt issue #8, “The Sound of Her Wings,” which introduced Morpheus’ sister, Death, into the story. But since the comic delighted in non-linear storytelling, it is possible other episodes in the season will feature (seemingly) standalone tales of people coming into contact with Morpheus or one of his subjects. An entirely animated episode based on issue #18, “A Dream of A Thousand Cats,” would be an amazing thing to watch. We also imagine Gaiman’s “little bit more” will include the introduction of The Corinthian; a wayward and murderous dream who becomes the series’ first major antagonist, but does not appear until the comic book’s second storyline.
In January 2021, Netflix announced the first of the cast and their roles:
• TOM STURRIDGE is DREAM, Lord of the Dreaming
• GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE is LUCIFER, Ruler of Hell
• VIVIENNE ACHEAMPONG is LUCIENNE, chief librarian and trusted guardian of Dream’s realm
• BOYD HOLBROOK is THE CORINTHIAN, an escaped nightmare who wishes to taste all that the world has in store
• CHARLES DANCE is RODERICK BURGESS, Charlatan, blackmailer and magician
• ASIM CHAUDHRY is ABEL and SANJEEV BHASKAR is CAIN, the first victim and the first predator, residents and loyal subjects of the Dream Realm.
(Photo by Netflix)
In May 2021, Netflix announced a new batch of cast members, including Jenna Coleman, Stephen Fry, Patton Oswalt, David Thewlis, and Joely Richardson. Gaiman, in a blog post, wrote, “there are more parts to be announced. And I thought it would be fun to tell you about some of them, and the thinking behind them.
DEATH – Dream’s wiser, nicer, and much more sensible sister. Significantly harder to cast than you might imagine (well, than I imagined, anyway). Hundreds of talented women from all around the planet auditioned, and they were brilliant, and none of them were right. Someone who could speak the truth to Dream, on the one hand, but also be the person you’d want to meet when your life was done on the other. And then we saw Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s (she/her) audition and we knew we had our Death.
DESIRE – Dream’s sibling and everything you want, whatever you want and whoever you are. Desire is also trouble for Dream. Families are complicated. We had barely started looking when Mason Alexander Park (they/them) reached out on Twitter, and threw their hat into the ring. We were thrilled when they got the part.
DESPAIR – Desire’s twin, Dream’s sister. She is the moment when all hope is gone, the bleakest of the Endless. Donna Preston (she/her) will be playing her, and her performance is chilling and sad. You feel her pain.
JOHANNA CONSTANTINE – Eighteenth Century occult adventuress, John Constantine’s great-great-great grandmother. This Sandman character became so popular that she even had her own spin-off series. I created her to fill the role that John Constantine does in the past. When we broke down the first season, given that we knew that we would be encountering Johanna in the past, we wondered what would happen if we met a version of her in the present as well. We tried it and the script was sparkier, feistier, and in some ways even more fun. So having written her, we just had to cast her. Jenna Coleman (she/her) gave us the Johanna of our dreams – tough, brilliant, tricky, haunted and probably doomed.
ETHEL CRIPPS – Roderick Burgess’s love, John Dee’s mother, is a small but vital role in the comics, but she became more important as we told our story. In the 1920s and 30s, she is played by Niamh Walsh (she/her): a betrayed and determined young woman seeking to survive. In the present day, now a woman of a hundred identities and a thousand lies, she’s played by the brilliant Joely Richardson (she/her).
JOHN DEE – Ethel’s son is dangerous. He was driven mad, long ago. Now he’s out and on a quest for Truth that may destroy the world. We needed an actor who could break your heart and keep your sympathy while taking you into the darkest places. We were lucky that David Thewlis (he/him) took the part.
Now we’re shooting The Doll’s House, the second big Sandman storyline. It’s the story of:
ROSE WALKER – a young woman on a desperate search for her missing brother, who finds a family she didn’t know that she had, and a connection to Dream that neither of them can escape. We needed someone young who could make you care as she ventures into some very dangerous places. Boyd Holbrook’s Corinthian is waiting for her, after all. Kyo Ra (she/her) achieves that as Rose.
LYTA HALL – Rose’s friend, a young widow mourning her husband Hector. Rose doesn’t know that Hector has started showing up in Lyta’s dreams, though. Or that strange things are happening. Razane Jammal (she/her) is Lyta, and she’s terrific.
UNITY KINKAID – Heiress, Rose’s mysterious benefactor. She has spent a century asleep. Now she’s awake, having missed out on her life. She’s played by Sandra James Young (she/her).
GILBERT – Rose Walker’s debonair protector. A dab hand with a paradox and a sword cane. Stephen Fry (he/him) is a National Treasure, and we forget sometimes that he’s also a remarkable actor. Seeing him in costume and make up on the dailies made me blink: it was as if the comic had come to life.
MATTHEW – Dream’s trusted emissary. A raven. I expected our animals to be CGI, and was both taken aback and thrilled when the dailies started coming in, and there was Dream talking to… well, a raven. But ravens don’t really talk. The question was, could we find an actor who could make you care about a dead person who was now a bird in the Dreaming – one who isn’t certain what’s going on, or whether any of this is a good idea? And could we find a voice performer who was also the kind of Sandman fan who used to stand in line to get his Sandman comics signed? The answer was, we could if we asked Patton Oswalt (he/him). And Patton was the first person we asked, and the first person we cast, the day before we pitched The Sandman to Netflix.
Of course, there are more delights and nightmares cast than I’ve listed here, and we have a few more secrets up our sleeves. I can’t wait until you can start watching.”
On September 25, 2021, Gaiman and Sturridge revealed a first look at the series’ opening moments, in which Burgess summons Dream and, apparently, gets some help from an unseen Corinthian. The official Instagram and Twitter accounts also unveiled the first character posters for Dream, Death, and Desire.
I am the Lord of Dream and Nightmare. pic.twitter.com/8t8NI9PZZd
— The Sandman (@Netflix_Sandman) September 25, 2021
As for the main plot, Dream will likely spend the season reclaiming three essential items containing much of his power – a ruby, a bag of dust, and a gas-mask-like helmet – while learning the ways his captivity changed the Dreaming and the waking world. In the comics, this story featured appearances from DC characters like Dr. Destiny, Martian Manhunter, and John Constantine, but it is unclear if the TV series will maintain these comic book ties. For Instance, although John (and actor Matt Ryan) will be absent from the series, his ancestor Johanna Constantine will take his place in the scoundrel’s team-up with Dream.
Additionally, issue #4, “A Hope in Hell,” introduced the version of Lucifer Morningstar featured in Netflix’s Lucifer. While we initially theorized Lucifer star Tom Ellis might do another cross-show cameo (he appeared briefly in the Arrowverse’s “Crisis on Infinite Earths” crossover event), the part will be played by Game of Thrones’ Christie. Considering Lucifer is far more androgynous in The Sandman – and quite like David Bowie in his first appearance – the choice of Christie is inspired. Although, it should be noted that the Prince of Darkness only makes a handful of appearances in the series, so it remains to be seen how often we will actually see Christie on screen.
Though Sturridge and Christie’s involvement was rumored for some time, Netflix confirmed their participation in January 2021. Other actors confirmed at the time include Acheampong as Morpheus’s trusted librarian Lucienne; Bhaskar and Chaudhry as Cain and Abel – yes, that Cain and Abel; Holbrook as the Corinthian, the murderous dream who becomes more of a threat in the comic book’s second storyline; and Dance’s Roderick Burgess, a key figure in Dream’s 20th century captivity.
The program will also update the story, with Dream escaping his captivity in the 2020s instead of the 1980s. As Gaiman told CBC Radio in November of 2019, “Instead of him being a captive for about 80 years, he’s going to be a captive for about 110 years and that will change things.” But, as he learned adapting Good Omens to the medium, changing things is part of the fun; though, fans surely wonder how much of the comic’s undeniably goth aesthetic will survive the update. Will Morpheus’ sister look passé with her Cleopatra eye make-up and ankh pendant? Or will it have retro charm by the time we first hear the sound of her wings?
Gaiman is already willing to change Dream’s look, originally inspired by Bauhaus frontman Peter Murphy. Nevertheless, he promises a more or less faithful telling of the story is on its way.
The series will likely appear sometime in 2021; of course, that could change in the current climate. And though it is a while to wait, there is good news: Gaiman, Goyer, and Heinberg have already plotted season 2.