Sandman: is Neil Gaiman's comic masterpiece unfilmable?

The adaptation of the author’s classic work has been shedding writers, directors and has left some people wondering if the project is cursed

Perhaps we should be calling it “The Curse of Sandman”. Another screenwriter who was on board to work on the long-proposed movie adaptation of the Neil Gaiman-penned comic book appears to have jumped ship.

Eric Heisserer, whose credits include the recent remakes of 80s horror staples Nightmare on Elm Street and The Thing, was hired back in March by New Line as the latest writer for its troubled project to bring the DC/Vertigo comics series to the big screen. Heisserer was brought in just after director and actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt left the movie, citing creative differences with Warner subsidiary New Line.

Sandman was created for DC by Gaiman in 1988 and as a comic book it ran for 75 issues, becoming part of the publisher’s mature readers line Vertigo not long after it launched. It’s a sweeping, epic narrative concerning not just Morpheus, the titular Sandman and lord of the realm of dreams, but also his “Endless” siblings – including Death, Destiny and Desire – and the diverse denizens of the otherworldly Dreaming.

And perhaps that’s where the trouble lies; Sandman is just too big to fit neatly into a two-hour movie slot. It wasn’t composed of neat five- or six-issue story arcs as many comic series are today; it was a succession of long-running stories and one-off issues – some of which didn’t feature the title character at all.

Pretty much everyone agrees that Sandman would actually work better as a TV series. Heisserer told iO9: “I had many conversations with Neil [Gaiman] on this, and I did a lot of work on the feature and came to the conclusion that the best version of this property exists as an HBO series or limited series, not as a feature film, not even as a trilogy. The structure of the feature film really doesn’t mesh with this. So I went back and said here’s the work that I’ve done. This isn’t where it should be. It needs to go to TV. So I talked myself out of a job!”

Gordon-Levitt wrote on his Facebook page six months ago when he left the film: “A while back, David Goyer and I made a producing deal with Warner Brothers to develop a movie adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Neil himself came on as an executive producer, we hired the excellent screenwriter Jack Thorne, and we started in on the ambitious task of adapting one of the most beloved and boundary-pushing titles in the world of comics. I was pleased with the progress we were making, even though we still had quite a ways to go.”

He went on to talk about the change in ownership of the Sandman material (it switched to Warner Brothers subsidiary New Line), before adding: “I wish nothing but the best for the team moving forward.”

But is there any forward to move to? Though Gaiman created the characters – and made existing ones his own for the series – Sandman belongs to DC/Vertigo, not him, so he has no actual say in what happens with any adaptation.

Gaiman has seen his work adapted for the big screen – notably his creepy children’s book Coraline and his fairytale adventure Stardust – but has found equal, if not greater success in TV. Earlier this year in the UK, Sky Arts screened Neil Gaiman’s Likely Stories, adapted from his short fiction, and next spring we see the much-anticipated Starz TV series based on his hit 2001 novel American Gods.

Even American Gods was first mooted as a movie, because even 10 years ago that was considered the ultimate success story for an adaptation. It was considered too big and unwieldy to adapt for a single film, though. But now we live in something of a golden age for serial TV thanks to Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead.

Gaiman told me earlier this year at the launch of Likely Stories: “It used to be that if you couldn’t get a film you might get a movie made for TV or a miniseries, and that was considered quite a step down. But now people want to make TV. Here we are 15 years later, and what worked against us is actually on our side. It’s wonderful.”

Which surely, as everyone suggests, is the route any adaptation of Sandman must go. Indeed, the very first plans to adapt Sandman were actually for TV: Supernatural creator Eric Kripke was initially attached to the series, but the project collapsed in 2011. Maybe if American Gods is the success everyone is anticipating then Warner/New Line will stop worrying and the curse can be put to bed.


David Barnett

The GuardianTramp

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