Recently, Eric Heisserer made news by abruptly quitting as screenwriter for New Line Cinema’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s “The Sandman,” only a few months after producer Joseph Gordon-Levitt also left the project. But where Gordon-Levitt attributed his leaving to unspecified creative differences, Heisserer questioned whether it was even possible to make a good “Sandman” movie:
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.
Heisserer is right: “Sandman” is much better suited for the small screen than for the cineplex.
It’s not a mystery why DC and New Line Cinema (both Warner Brothers subsidiaries) want a “Sandman” movie. We’re in the middle of the golden age of comic book movies, and “The Sandman” happens to be one of the most critically-acclaimed comics of all time, written by one of the highest-profile authors of the past quarter-century. Plus, it’s a series, practically guaranteeing that mad franchise money.
But that doesn’t change the fact that “Sandman” is particularly ill-suited for the silver screen. It is a deeply introspective, lengthy storyline with a massive cast, and two to three hours is not nearly enough time to tell even a part of the story well. Sure, an expert creative team could get the major plot points down, but without room to breathe and to explore the whys and wherefores of what is happening, it’s hard to believe that any films based on the source material would carry much of the comic’s emotional resonance.
Think, for instance, about the second “Sandman” arc, “The Doll’s House.” In eight issues, Gaiman, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III weave an astonishingly intricate story about Rose Walker’s search for her lost brother Jed; Morpheus’s quest to track down a group of missing nightmares; the collapse of the Dreaming into the vortex that is also Rose; the story of what happened when Morpheus fell in love with a prior generation’s vortex; and Desire’s plot to destroy Morpheus by tricking him into spilling family blood. (And that’s leaving out the interlude “Men of Good Fortune,” in which we meet the immortal Hob Gadling.) Good luck fitting all of that into a three hour film that still makes sense.
Imagine, instead, “Sandman” as a TV series. The eight issues of “The Doll’s House” could be an entire season, with tension slowly building to a two-parter where Rose unexpectedly finds herself at a serial killer convention. “Collectors” would make for some absolutely engrossing—and terrifying—television, but it would be one of the first things on the cutting room floor in a movie; there’s no time for serial killer panel discussions if you’re rushing to explain the idea of a dream vortex. Then, just when things seem back to normal, an epic season finale where the walls between dreams collapse into Rose’s vortex.
It’s not just “The Doll’s House.” The entire series would work better as a, well, series. It’s easy to imagine “The Sandman” #1 as the basis of a strong pilot episode, but in a film it would be the equivalent of the boring first act of the movie before the hero gets his powers. The road trip that is at the heart of “Brief Lives” could be more than just a quick montage; “The Wake” could be more than just a quick epilogue at the end of “The Kindly Ones.” Time and again, the structure of a film would diminish what made “The Sandman” great to begin with.
A TV series would also allow for some truly spectacular done-in-ones that could be intermingled with the main plot. Many of original series’ strongest stories were single issues that could easily be translated into television episodes: “Three Septembers and a January” about San Francisco’s Emperor Norton, “A Dream of a Thousand Cats” about what your cat is really dreaming about, or the Shakespearean “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” to name just three. There’s years of material here.
A TV series wouldn’t be limited just to the core series, though: it could also dive into some of the sequels, prequels, and spinoffs that have made the Dreaming so vibrant. An arc focused on the Dead Boy Detectives (perhaps an adaptation of the Gaiman co-written “The Children’s Crusade”), a bottle episode about Merv Pumpkinhead cleaning up the castle (and complaining the whole time), or an episode exploring Thessaly’s backstory would all be amazing. And Gaiman’s “Death” minis are such obvious fodder that they practically demand a spinoff series (perhaps fleshed out with material from Jill Thompson’s “At Death’s Door” manga).
“The Sandman” is such an incredibly detailed series, with so many amazing moments and characters, that it would be a genuine shame to ruin it by making it into a movie. This is a series that practically demands the HBO treatment (especially given that HBO and DC are both Warner Brothers subsidiaries). It’s not hard to imagine “The Sandman” as the next “Game of Thrones“.
So, come on, DC and Warner Bros.: do “The Sandman” the right way: make it a TV series, not a movie franchise. You’ll thank me later.
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