“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.
The rumors are true. The tangled story of Morpheus, King of Dreams is becoming a Netflix series! Warner Brothers and executive producer Allan Heinberg (Wonder Woman screenwriter) have signed on to bring the dream of Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman into reality. pic.twitter.com/cOMjPL5cqp
— NX (@NXOnNetflix) July 1, 2019
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.
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.
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.
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 are working on the pilot script. Also, unlike previous attempts to bring The Sandman to the screen, the show has an 11-episode commitment.
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.
As for the main plot, Morpheus will 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. That said, Constantine TV series star Matt Ryan has previously volunteered to play John wherever and whenever the character appears in other shows, movies, or animated material.
Additionally, issue #4, “A Hope in Hell,” introduced the version of Lucifer Morningstar featured in Netflix’s Lucifer. It is theoretically possible that series’ star, Tom Ellis, could make an appearance as the Prince of Darkness for this one episode, which would no doubt make fans of that series quite happy and, eventually, lead to a handful of other appearances should The Sandman continue.
The program will also update the story, with Morpheus escaping his captivity in the 2020s instead of the 1980s. As Gaiman told CBC Radio last November, “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 Morpheus’ 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.