After months of anticipation, “American Gods” premiered last weekend on Starz to positive reviews (and a 92 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.) With the drama, based on Neil Gaiman’s bestselling 2001 novel, expected to perform well — and boost the number of Starz subscribers — speculation has been rampant about which of the author’s works might next be headed to television.
If Gaiman had his way, it would be “The Sandman,” the seminal fantasy comic that helped to define DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint in the 1990s. In a recent interview, the author said that adapting the title to television would resolve many of the issues that have kept a “Sandman” movie from getting off the ground.
“For a long time, I’ve been saying with a movie, you’ll have to throw so many things out,” he said. “Why not take all the things that make [it difficult to adapt], take all the bugs in ‘Sandman,’ and make them features. The fact that you have 75 issues, plus a whole bunch of stories? You have 80 episodes. That’s a good thing! The fact that you have adult themes and adult things? That’s now a good thing. It will be very strange to take ‘Sandman’ to TV, but I really do think it’s the most important thing we could do. And I hope if ‘American Gods’ goes big? Between that and ‘Lucifer,’ that could help.”
As I argued last year, “The Sandman” is much better suited for television than film because it’s simply too large a story to wedge into a movie or even a series of movies. Squeezing story arcs like “The Doll’s House” or “Brief Lives” into two hours would mean cutting out some of the details that made those arcs great. There simply wouldn’t be time to spend watching the panel discussions at a serial killer convention or to philosophize on the links between strip clubs and temple prostitution. And, without the one-off stories in which they were introduced, we would never meet some of the series’ most memorable characters, such as Hob Gadling, the Dead Boy Detectives, Lady Johanna Constantine and Emperor Norton I of the United States.
Even if TV seems a much better fit for “The Sandman” than the big screen, Warner Bros. might still need convincing to give up its plans for a cinematic franchise. Fortunately, the success of “American Gods” could help show that a “Sandman” series is not only doable, but that it could be a massive success.
One of the biggest worries with a mythology-heavy series like “The Sandman” is that the audience won’t be willing to invest the time or effort to figure out how the world works. But, while there are differences, the mythologies of “The Sandman” and “American Gods” are remarkably similar; both are based on the premise that mankind creates and empowers the gods through belief. “The Sandman” adds to this the seven Endless and the inhabitants of the Dreaming, but these seem relatively easy asks once viewers have accepted that existence of mythical gods and monsters.
“American Gods” also demonstrates how it might be possible to make the Dreaming and its inhabitants work on a TV budget. The first episode had several dream and dream-like sequences, where Shadow visited the eponymous bone orchard and met the Technical Boy, or the instantly infamous scene with Bilquis. While not actually a dream, that latter sequence was in some ways the most dreamlike, with the red color scheme and the gradual transition from a traditional sex scene to something altogether different in a way that evoked the freeform nature of dream logic. If “American Gods” can pull off showing a man absorbed into a goddess’ vagina, then “The Sandman” can recreate Dream’s duel in Hell with Choronzon or the nightmarish horror of the Corinthian.
The gruesomeness of the “American Gods” pilot also demonstrates there is an audience for the sophisticated horror-fantasy that is such a significant part of “The Sandman.” A “Sandman” series could mix the stylized horror of “Hannibal” and “American Horror Story” with the urban fantasy of “American Gods” and “The Magicians” to tell some truly visceral, disturbing stories. The Corinthian could very easily inspire real-world nightmares, and, if the producers want to go all-in on existential horror, there are few comics more unsettling than “The Sandman” #6, “24 Hours.”
“American Gods” also provides a model for how side stories can be integrated into a broader TV narrative. The series opens with a scene set more than 1,000 years in the past that is there solely to explain how the Old World gods came to North America, and it takes a break midway through the first episode to tell the “Somewhere in America” story of Bilquis. Like “American Gods,” “The Sandman” could integrate many of its fantastic one-off issues directly into the narrative, giving them prominence without breaking the flow of the broader series. Stories like “The Sandman” #17, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats,” could work particularly well in this format, subtly adding to the broader narrative of the episode without becoming a distraction.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, “American Gods” shows that when the cast is perfect, it almost doesn’t matter what they’re saying or doing. The first episode included a significant amount of dialogue taken almost word for word from Gaiman’s novel, and it didn’t always transition well to the screen. However, “American Gods” is so well-cast that nearly every line ends up working anyway, because of the sheer charisma behind it. Ian McShane, in particular, is an utter delight as Mr. Wednesday. If “The Sandman” can cast half as well as “American Gods,” it will very likely be a success.
Here, “The Sandman” has one distinct advantage over “American Gods.” Because the cast of the comic series changes dramatically from arc to arc, it might be easier to get high-profile actors to agree to do a single season than, say, seven-plus years of an ongoing series. Although many characters make subsequent appearances, only a few are truly essential, and “The Sandman” is flexible enough that some stories could be moved around to meet actors’ schedules. Getting the right actors for both the main cast and for major supporting roles could help make “The Sandman” truly compelling television.
The greatest casting coup of all, however, would be if “The Sandman” took full advantage of the series that went before it, and featured Matt Ryan as John Constantine, Tom Ellis as Lucifer, and Ian McShane himself in the relatively minor role of Odin in “Season of Mists.” McShane as the All-Father would be particularly interesting to see, as he would be portraying a much more traditional version of the Norse god.
Ultimately, though, “American Gods” might influence the development of a “Sandman” TV series in a much more mundane way: If the series is successful enough, other studios, including Warner Bros., will want to mimic it to get some of that “American Gods” money. Because “The Sandman” is a very similar franchise also written by Gaiman, it is an obvious choice, and because Warner Bros. already owns the rights, there is no need to negotiate with anyone to make it happen. The question, then, is whether Warner Bros. is willing to give up the potential of a (likely mediocre) film franchise to make what could be a truly epic TV series.
“American Gods” airs Sundays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.