It’s both strange and poetic to realize that the city dubbed the Dream Factory almost became the place that buried The Dreaming. But it’s part of the lore attached to “The Sandman,” Neil Gaiman’s lyrical masterpiece: He spent years trapped in the dying plane known as Development Hell.
If you know the story, it’s easy to see why this happened. “The Sandman” doesn’t have a supervillain to rally audiences against, a necessary element in every superhero created since Christopher Reeves played Superman. If that 1978 movie established what comic book theatrical adaptations are supposed to look like, Gaiman’s Master of Dreams never stood a chance.
Dream, also known as Morpheus, Oneiros, and The Sandman, among many other monikers (Tom Sturridge), doesn’t fit the standard superhero mold.
He is part of a group of siblings known as The Endless, immortals who have been around since the first sentient lifeforms emerged from the void. In the first season, we meet his siblings Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Desire (Mason Alexander Park), and Despair (Donna Preston). But there are others, including Destiny and Delirium.
The Endless are not a welded unit. In fact, some of Dream’s siblings would love to destroy or dethrone him. Either way, he never indulges in physical violence. He’s largely indifferent to common definitions of good or evil, and he’s not a muscular giant.
Rather, its dominance is the human subconscious, and its duty is to reinforce the boundary between The Dreaming and our reality.
If you believe in fate, maybe the decades-long delay in bringing “The Sandman” from the page to the screen was meant to be. Television and our tastes have evolved in ways that allow us to better appreciate Gaiman’s fable in terms of artistry and adventurous plot progression.
“The Sandman,” which Gaiman developed and produced alongside David S. Goyer and showrunner Allan Heinberg, follows the main rules of TV series while stretching others. Like Dream does in the graphic novel, its hero time-jumps and jumps between realms and, at least once, wears a different face. Much of the inaugural season is spent establishing layered characters and world building.
Television and our tastes have evolved in ways that allow us to better appreciate Gaiman’s fable.
Inadvertently, however, the crime that kicks off Dream’s introductory adventure lands differently today than it did three decades ago. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, Dream was a gothic mascot who resembled The Cure singer Robert Smith.
Sturridge is about as close physically to this original sketch as one can imagine. Thirty years ago, Dream stood out for its emotional distance and composure. Now, in the age of scams and thefts, he’s just another guy minding his own business when his life is irrevocably changed by a criminal he never saw coming. .
“The Sandman” sticks closely to the original plot of the first two graphic novels, “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House”, beginning with the accidental capture and imprisonment of Dream by a trickster and magician named Roderick Burgess ( Charles Dance).
Tom Sturridge as Dream in “The Sandman” (Netflix)
Decades ago, my first immature reading of this moment viewed Dream’s ordeal as simply the inciting incident of an epic odyssey that is both a head trip and a road trip. Looking back at the page today may give a different reading, but seeing it on screen leaves little ambivalence that we are witnessing an extreme breach.
Dream is not simply stolen, he is defrocked and left naked.
Burgess originally intended to capture Death, but when Dream materializes instead, unconscious and helpless, the “magus” decides he’ll be fine. Burgess steals Dream’s power seals – his sandbag, a flawless ruby, and his helmet, the equivalent of his crown – and keeps the Master of Dreams trapped inside a glass bubble for over a century.
The magician uses the tools of Dream to become immensely wealthy and influential while the rest of the world suffers. Some people never wake up. Others lose their minds because they can’t sleep. Burgess and his followers don’t care, as it doesn’t affect their endless party.
In the comics, Dream seethes over the fact that he, an omnipotent deity, has been tricked into the cheap spell of a charlatan. Today, too many of us can identify with this feeling; lamenting that we should be smarter than that is a common refrain in an age of rampant conspiracy theories and sophisticated scams. However, Gaiman does not allow Dream’s imprisonment to harden him.
Once he escapes, he sets out to find his belongings and fix The Dreaming, which has decayed in his absence. Gaiman allows Dream to triumph using his superior wisdom and ingenuity, even against Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie) in his field. All the while, he’s confronting who he is to the universe and considering the possibility that even the worst of us could change for the better.
Where he might seek revenge, he chooses restoration instead, using what he recovers to rebuild his universe.
It’s not necessarily a glorious choice, as the second half of the season presents a threat to The Dreaming personified by Rose Walker (Vanesu Samunyai). Rose is a kind and determined young woman who just wants to find her brother whom she had to leave behind when their parents divorced. Without wanting it or wanting it, it also has the power to annihilate existence.
“The Sandman” is a story about the power of stories, especially the ones we tell ourselves.
Dream has little in common with Rose as he struggles to come to terms with his vulnerability, exposed by Burgess and embittered by the fact that none of his all-powerful siblings made an effort to save him. But Rose and her younger brother are also survivors, like Dream. Instead of isolating herself from others, she expands her connections with others.
“The Sandman” is a story about the power of stories, especially the ones we tell ourselves. The dream is the weaver of delights and the initiator of nightmares, the entity responsible for bringing comfort to humans and challenging them to face their fears. But he also convinced himself of truths that no longer fit him or were never right in the first place.
Patton Oswald as Matthew the Raven (voice) and Vanesu Samunyai as Rose Walker in “The Sandman” (Liam Daniel/Netflix)
The narrative engine of “The Sandman” is fueled by Gaiman’s examination of myth-making in the modern age. At the time of the graphic novel’s release, that meant the late 1980s.
Myth-making has a different connotation in 2022, though Gaiman can refute that notion. After all, his designs are interpretations of how we define words and terms. Myths can be benign and creative explanations of traditions or beliefs, or they can be malicious lies presented as dangerous truths.
Sturridge’s Dream believes its world to be a balm or source of artistic inspiration. However, in the wrong hands – human hands – his power eats people alive or causes them to cannibalize each other.
The Dream, when neglected or attacked, can crack, damaging it and our reality. And the most serious threats against him involve figures claiming they don’t care how their actions on one side affect the other.
For all the difficulty surrounding “The Sandman”‘s long journey from lush artwork to live-action reality, there was always something about the story that drew people in. If more of us know the tale than a few years ago, credit the dominant anointing to two of its tangential characters.
John Constantine, for example, pre-dates “The Sandman”. Alan Moore introduced the sorcerer detective in a 1985 issue of “The Swamp Thing,” but he appeared in the Gaiman universe in the first two issues. In any case, it was Constantine, not Dream, that inspired a 2005 movie starring Keanu Reeves and a short-lived 2014 NBC series that Goyer helped develop.
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The 2016 Fox/Netflix fantasy “Lucifer” also ties into the “Sandman” universe and managed to live through six seasons. But its creators kept only the remnants of the author’s initial portrait, placing the fallen angel inside a case-of-the-week walkthrough with a subplot depicting his struggle to figure out where he fit in. God’s plan.
“The Sandman” also presents mysteries to be unraveled, but its scope is too wide to fit in a folder. Luckily, Dream’s weakness is much like ours: he’s convinced he knows everything, doesn’t need anyone, and can’t change.
But the violence Burgess did to his ego changed him; his subjects and his sister Death remind him of this. When he embraces this fact, we see his heroism shine through. Not too long ago, a few Hollywood executives with limited imaginations decided that such a conceptual premise couldn’t be filmed.
This was before a time when many things we could never have imagined happened, for better or for worse. The Dreaming, as lush in this series, is a beautiful escape. But it’s also a fantasy with an honest core, showing that even the boldest beings in the universe can be undone by little men.
All 10 episodes of “The Sandman” are currently streaming on Netflix.
About Neil Gaiman