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The Sandman: How an 'unfilmable' comic made it to Netflix
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It's considered one of the great comic book series of all time, and now it's finally made it to the small screen. So ends an agonising journey, creator Neil Gaiman tells Stephen Kelly.
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There is a story that Neil Gaiman likes to tell. It is an anecdote about how, "around 15 years ago, maybe more," the author walked into a meeting with the then-heads of Warner Bros and pitched a trilogy of films based around his magnum opus – the dark, cerebral and long-running comic book series The Sandman. He had, for many years, resisted attempts to adapt any of its 3,000 pages, but he decided that this time he would lead the charge himself.

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"I was flown to Los Angeles," he tells BBC Culture. "There was art specially commissioned for it. There were all these busts and toys around the room. And I got to the end of the pitch and one head of Warner Bros turned to the other head of Warner Bros and he said, 'you know, we had lunch the other day to figure out what it was that made things like the Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings films so successful, and we figured it out. It's that they have clearly defined bad guys. Does Sandman have a clearly defined bad guy?' And I said 'no, it doesn't. It's not that kind of story'. And they said 'well thank you so much for coming' and that was the end of that."

Netflix's adaptation stars Tom Sturridge (left) as Morpheus, the lord of dreams, with Kirby Howell-Baptiste as his sister Death (Credit: Netflix)

It is one of many of Gaiman's stories about his turbulent relationship with Hollywood, and more specifically The Sandman's perilous journey through 33 years of development hell. It is a journey, however, that has, at last, come to an end – thanks to a new 10-part television series airing on Netflix. "Sandman needs time," says Gaiman, who was personally involved in developing the show. "If somebody had ever tried to make a movie of Game of Thrones, that wouldn't have worked either. You need space for a big story. You need time to care about characters. In Sandman season one, we had 340 speaking parts in those first 10 episodes. That's an awful lot of people to get to know and we've only just begun. We have adapted, so far, 400 pages out of 3,000."

First published by DC Comics in 1989, The Sandman is widely considered as one of the smartest, most challenging and imaginative comic books ever made. It follows Morpheus, the lord of dreams, as he tries to rebuild his kingdom after being imprisoned by humans for nearly 100 years. He travels to Hell to meet Lucifer; he tracks down a rogue nightmare called the Corinthian, who has teeth for eyes; he makes a deal with William Shakespeare; and embarks on a long, personal quest to undo the sins of his family the Endless, eternal personifications of aspects such as Death, Desire and Despair.

Largely split between the waking world and the realm of the Dreaming, the comics are told with an unflinching sense of maturity, depth and ambition. These are thematically complex works – stories about the profound nature of stories – drawn, coloured and inked by various artists but unified by an aesthetic that is gothic, surreal and melancholy. Upon its release, the series was a critical and commercial hit, and was hailed (perhaps unfairly, considering Alan Moore's 1982 series Swamp Thing) as the leader of a new wave of comic books: those that, rather than being for kids, carried a more serious, literary weight.

It is also a work that Gaiman himself is fiercely proud of. "I feel like Sandman is my legacy," he says, before going on to describe it as "my baby". As Gaiman would discover for himself, however, that is certainly not how Hollywood considered it. Instead, throughout the 90s and much of the early 21st century, The Sandman was viewed as less of a precious and unique child, and more as yet another superhero cash cow.

The aborted adaptations

"It all began in 1991," says Gaiman, "when I was sent to meet one of the executives at Warner Bros and she said, 'there's talk of a Sandman movie'. I say, 'please don't do it. I'm doing the comic and it would just be a distraction'. And she says, 'nobody has ever come into my office and asked me not to make a movie before'. And I said, 'well, I am'. Then she said 'Ok, we won't make a movie'. That lasted until about 1996," – the same year that Gaiman's original run of Sandman came to an end.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would go on to create Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, were hired to write one of the first drafts. The pair were huge admirers of the comics, and the script they delivered aimed to capture the essence of the source material, including a vignette set around the dreams of cats. "We were certain that we could convey the mood, intelligence, sensibilities and brilliance of Neil's work," Elliot once wrote on his blog Wordplay. But when the duo handed in their script, they were told that Warner Bros hated it so much that it was deemed "undeliverable", meaning that they would be denied their fee.

The issue, they theorised, is that between being commissioned for the script and finishing it, film producer Jon Peters, who had produced Tim Burton's Batman, had got involved in the project, and didn't seem to understand it. Writing on Wordplay, Elliot said: "My speculation on why the script was termed 'undeliverable': a) the studio wanted a free re-write, addressing the 'Dream of a Thousand Cats' section (which, if they'd treated us respectfully, we would have done); or b) Peters Productions wanted us off the project because we didn't incorporate his single, off-the-cuff and incredibly lame suggestion that a bunch of teenagers at a slumber party holding a séance are the ones that capture Dream; or c) both."

"There was a little while where Jon Peters was getting people to write scripts with giant mechanical spiders in," says Gaiman. "He had three projects, which was Sandman, Superman and Wild Wild West. And he only had one idea, which was a giant mechanical spider." Like The Sandman, Tim Burton's proposed Superman Lives, which would have starred Nicolas Cage, went through its own version of development hell. The mechanical spider would eventually make its way into famed box office flop Wild Wild West.

In a fantasy crossover, Game of Thrones' Gwendoline Christie plays Lucifer (Credit: Netflix)

The Elliot and Rossio script would get a brief reprieve after the involvement of director Roger Avary, who had won plaudits for co-writing Pulp Fiction. He told Warner Bros that "they were throwing out a diamond," according to Elliott, and suddenly the movie was on "the fast-track with a director attached". It wasn't to last, however. According to Gaiman, this was because Roger Avary had "made the mistake" of showing Warner Bros executives the surrealist 1988 stop-motion movie Alice, from Czech director Jan Švankmajer, as an example of how he wanted the movie's dream sequences to feel. "And by the time he'd finished that screening," says Gaiman, “his name had been painted over in the parking lot, and he was off the project.”

Writing on his website (in a post since deleted, but republished in film journalist David Hughes' book Tales from Development Hell), Avary cited creative differences with Jon Peters. "With me, Sandman would have had its own distinct look and feel. But look and feel wasn't the worrisome issue with me; it was that Jon Peters wanted the Sandman in tights beating the life out of the Corinthian (on page 1). When I brought up the fact that the Sandman would never raise his fist like a brute… I was asked if I wanted to make the movie or not."

There was one that was sent to me where his first line of dialogue was, 'huh? Puny mortals, as if your foolish weapons could harm me, the mighty Lord of Dreams, the Sandman'. Dialogue like that gets burned on your brain – Neil Gaiman

From there, says Gaiman, the scripts he was sent got worse and worse, with the original story becoming mangled beyond recognition. The producers were adamant, for instance, that the plot be tied into the coming millennium. They insisted on a scene with Morpheus in a rave club. "There was one that was sent to me," says Gaiman, "where his first line of dialogue was, 'huh? Puny mortals, as if your foolish weapons could harm me, the mighty Lord of Dreams, the Sandman'. Dialogue like that gets burned on your brain."

There would be further attempts to bring Sandman to the screen. As recently as 2013, it was announced that actor Joseph Gordon-Levitt would be spearheading a new adaptation, alongside producer David Goyer. "It was a terrific script by Jack Thorne," says Gaiman, "and Joe had planned to play the Corinthian." That attempt failed to get off the ground because The Sandman, along with other DC Comics properties, was moved to Warner Bros subsidiary New Line Cinema.

"New Line wanted to make fast and furious action films," explains Gaiman, "and they explained that philosophy to Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Joe jumped ship. They had no interest in the Jack Thorne script and commissioned another from somebody else. And when that terrific writer handed in a not very terrific script, he handed it in with a note saying, 'you guys should make a television series. You can't do this – this is a fool's game.'"

Why it was made for TV

The fact that Sandman can now be made as a largely faithful TV show says a lot about how much the medium has changed. "The truth of making television," as Gaiman explains, "is there's never enough money and there's never enough time but now you can deal with not enough money and not enough time on a much larger scale." Yet it also speaks of a larger cultural embrace of science fiction and fantasy. This is, after all, the age of Marvel and Game of Thrones, of The Lord of the Rings and Dune, of TV adaptations of Gaiman books like Good Omens and American Gods. It is a change that has coincided with the growing clout of Gaiman himself

"At no point in the development of any of those other [Sandman] projects was Neil invited into the process," says the show's co-showrunner Allan Heinberg. "And when the last round of Sandman films ran aground, David Goyer, who was a producer on them, went to Warner Bros and basically said, 'it's time to bring Neil Gaiman into the project and make him a producer and have him supervise the entire thing. The only way to do this is to do it faithfully and to do it with the author'."

Gaiman's input into the show has ranged from signing off on concept art to casting British actor Tom Sturridge as Morpheus: a character who can shift between different forms and ethnicities (and does so in the show), but who is mostly recognisable as a man who is tall, thin and pale as bone. "We saw people of every nationality, of every race, basically any actor with good cheekbones," says Gaiman, "but by the end it was still Tom. For me, the thing that made Tom stand out was the fact that he could say the lines in the way that they had sounded in my head. Morpheus' dialogue is ridiculously specific. It's slightly heightened, slightly archaic. It's very precise. It's the top of a boiling cauldron of suppressed emotion, thought and activity. And Tom landed it in a way other actors didn't."

One of the most challenging episodes, adapted from the issue 24 Hours, sees a diner being held hostage by the mentally unstable John Dee (David Thewlis) (Credit: Netflix)

The first series of Netflix's Sandman adapts the first two volumes – numbering 16 issues – of the comic books, Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House. They follow Morpheus as he seeks to track down powerful items that have been stolen from him while he was in captivity. One is a bag of sand that he tracks down with Jenna Coleman's occult detective Constantine; another is a helm that he finds with Gwendoline Christie's Lucifer; while the third is a ruby with the power to make dreams come true, which has been weaponised by the mentally unstable John Dee, played by David Thewlis. Chewing the scenery in the background, meanwhile, is Boyd Holbrook's nightmare Corinthian, who, along with becoming the star attraction at a serial killer convention, has discovered a girl who may hold the key to destroying Dream.

The episodic nature of television is a more natural fit for a source material that is itself split into issues. Although that doesn't mean that it wasn't a challenge. Panels, after all, have to be adapted into scenes; short, digressing stories – like Death and Dream making a man immortal for a laugh – have to be folded into hour-long scripts.

A particularly difficult issue to adapt was 24 Hours, which charts every gruesome hour of a diner being held hostage by John Dee, who is able to puppeteer its customers using Morpheus' ruby. It is a dark and disturbing issue, one which started out as something of a formal exercise for Gaiman – 24 hours, 24 pages. "We didn't have a narrator leading you through it [like in the comic]," says Heinberg. "We really wanted the characters to interact with each other. We wanted you to be able to fall in love with them and invest in them before the darkness descends. So Neil basically just gave us as writers permission to reimagine how we told the story."

It was awful worrying about those previous Sandmans. I was terrified that somebody would phone up and say, 'Ok, good news, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Sandman!' – Neil Gaiman

For Gaiman himself, revisiting The Sandman after so many years has been a strange, "fascinating" experience.  When he first created the comic in the late 80s, he attempted to tell a story that examined what the 20th Century does with, to and about mythology. With that in mind, he also aimed to make the comics as inclusive as possible, with the stories exploring different cultures and mythologies, as well as being ahead of their time in terms of gay and transgender characters. "When I was doing the comic," says Gaiman, "I was getting flack for the fact that Sandman didn't have politics in it. Everybody else was doing comics that had politics in. And you knew they had politics because they drew Margaret Thatcher with vampire teeth. People were saying 'Sandman is completely apolitical'. And I remember thinking, 'I don't think it is, but maybe it isn't in the way that you think'."

As though to crown his point, and to illustrate how much the definition of "political" has changed, Gaiman says that he has recently been attacked by, in his words, "idiots" for making Sandman that most nebulous of things: "woke". Yet, beyond casting Kirby Howell-Baptiste, a black woman, as Death, where in the comics they appeared to be white, most of the characters (including the androgynous Desire, played by non-binary actor Mason Alexander Park) are as they were in the original comics. "I’m going 'well, whatever you're complaining about, we did 33 years ago'," says Gaiman. "I remember integrating gay, lesbian and trans characters into the story back then and I had people blinking at me in a rather baffled way, like 'why would you put these people into your story?' And now it's terrifyingly woke."

More than anything, however, Gaiman feels an immense sense of relief that his "baby" is now in safe hands.

"My baby is going off to school," he says. "My baby is learning how to drive. It was awful worrying about those previous Sandmans. I was terrified that somebody would phone up and say, 'Ok, good news, Arnold Schwarzenegger is the Sandman!' And it would just be like, 'oh no, this is the worst. That's actually commercial enough that somebody's going to make this. This is going to be Howard the Duck. Here is this thing that I've made that's won all these literary awards and people are just going to remember it as a terrible movie'. I didn't want that to happen.

"There's lots of other books I've written," he continues, "lots of awards, but Sandman totals 3,000 pages and pretty much each of those pages took four pages of writing to describe to an artist. So, you're talking 12,000 pages that I wrote over 33 years. I want this thing done right and beautiful and so far it is."

The Sandman is on Netflix from 5 August

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