Neil Gaiman's Sandman: maybe a film adaptation just isn't meant to be

Attempts to bring the Neil Gaiman comic books to the screen have foundered repeatedly – but is filming such a complex work a good idea in the first place?

The bid to bring Neil Gaiman’s Sandman characters to the big screen appears to have run off the rails again, after director Joseph Gordon-Levitt dropped out of the project citing creative differences with New Line, the studio that owns the rights to the comic book published by DC and its mature-readers line Vertigo.

It’s not the first time plans to film Sandman have hit the buffers. Originally, DC was in talks with HBO to turn it into a TV series, which collapsed. Then in 2010 it was announced that Eric Kripke, the man behind Supernatural, was planning to bring Sandman to the small screen. By the following year, that had stalled as well.

By 2013 Gordon-Levitt was linked to Sandman – possibly having a starring role in it as well as directing – but last week he said in a Facebook post that “a few months ago, I came to realize that the folks at New Line and I just don’t see eye to eye on what makes Sandman special, and what a film adaptation could/should be. So unfortunately, I decided to remove myself from the project. I wish nothing but the best for the team moving forward.”

Sandman as a comic book began in 1988 and ran for 75 issues, followed by a couple of spin-offs and, recently, a six-issue miniseries penned by Gaiman with art by JH Williams III. All the way back in issue three there was a guest spot by urban magician John Constantine – and more of him later – who mused: “Something’s trying to tell me somebody.”

Maybe something – the universe, the Dreaming, the place where stories come from – is trying to tell the somebodies – the bean-counters at DC and New Line – that maybe, just maybe, Sandman shouldn’t be a TV series or movie at all.

That’s something that Neil Gaiman might not thank me for saying, though any Sandman adaptation, even if it broke box office records and scooped a dozen Oscar nominations, wouldn’t put food on his table; Sandman is owned by DC, and what they do with the character is up to them, not Gaiman. It could be turned into a Farrelly brothers gross-out comedy with a soundtrack by Little Mix for all the say he’d have in it.

Which is, of course, highly unlikely for such beloved source material. And aye, there’s the rub (Shakespeare himself does, of course, feature in Sandman). Over the 75 issues and more than seven years, Gaiman and his various artistic collaborators painted a sprawling, epic canvas that would take a dozen movies to do justice to, that featured issues and whole story arcs where the titular character of Morpheus, lord of dreams, barely appeared, yet which – if you take a step back to admire in its entirety – is stunning in its cohesion and execution.

Any kind of adaptation could only in reality tackle the introductory storyline, of Morpheus escaping from his imprisonment at the hands of an Aleister Crowley-esque magician, and his quest to return himself to his realm of the Dreaming. And that’s really just scratching the surface of the whole story.

No one can blame the comic publishers and studios for wanting to take a punt, of course. It barely needs saying that comic book adaptations are ripping through the box offices and TV schedules. The big-budget spectacles of the costumed heroes are part of our cultural fabric now, from Avengers to Batman v Superman, from Suicide Squad to Ant-Man. And the success of shows like Netflix’s Jessica Jones, adapted from the Marvel comic Alias, shows there is a market for grittier, adult-orientated, non-costumed fare.

But what works on paper doesn’t always translate to the screen. Take the TV show Constantine, which drew heavily on the early issues of another DC/Vertigo hit, Hellblazer. The character was created by Alan Moore as a wise-cracking walk-on magician, from Liverpool by way of London, full of street-smarts and an ever-present Silk Cut, and got his own series just ahead of Sandman.

Despite playing fast and loose with the mythology to Americanise it more (though keeping Constantine’s UK origins), it wasn’t a bad attempt at an adaptation at all, and won a fair few fans – not enough to get it a second series, though, or encourage any other network to pick it up.

Lucifer, which debuted in January on Fox, with Brit Tom Ellis in the title role, is actually based on a character from Gaiman’s Sandman run, who got his own hugely popular Vertigo title written by Mike Carey. Does this tale of an Earth-bound Satan match up to the comics? The Guardian damned it with the faintest of praise: “If you love the comic and have room in your DVR, this is the perfect thing to half-watch while you try to defeat level 372 of Candy Crush.”

The next Vertigo comic to make it to TV is Preacher, based on the story by Garth Ennis and Steve Dillon, and starring Brit Dominic Cooper as Jesse Custer, the Texan preacher bonded to a demon. It’s due mid-2016, though a trailer released last year by the network AMC (who also do the Walking Dead) curiously downplayed the supernatural elements on which the whole comic is built, raising slight alarm among fans.

Neither Lucifer nor Constantine – though they have their own merits – can hold a candle to the comics they were based on, and early indications suggest Preacher might follow the same path.

So perhaps like them Sandman is one of those stories that can only be told in the medium it was intended to be told in: the comic book form, an alliance of literature and visuals which is neither prose nor film but an altogether different way of storytelling. Perhaps Sandman was never meant to be anything other than a comic book, and perhaps there’s nothing wrong in that at all.


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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