• Art Doesn’t Care If You Like It: Gabrielle Bellot on The Sandman Adaptation

    “Why should art need to appease and excite everyone at once?”

    In 1991, two years after he had started to write the Sandman graphic novels, Neil Gaiman received the first of many offers to adapt his curious comics to the screen. In some ways, this was an early testament to the unexpected power of Gaiman’s series, given the fact that The Sandman was a kind of reboot of a relatively obscure figure from the DC comic universe, Morpheus, who rules the realm of dreams, and Gaiman himself was a promising newcomer who had done memorable work on a number of comics but was still finding his groove after spending much of his career in journalism.

    A “good ‘idea man,’” Karen Berger, Gaiman’s editor at Vertigo who had greenlit the reboot, recalled of the British writer in an introduction to the first volume, “but whether he could execute those concepts was another story.” Berger had moderate hope for the series, but, as she recalls, it ended up astonishing her, “develop[ing] into one of the most atypical books in comics,” or, as she put it earlier in the essay, “one of the best comics works ever produced.”

    That was because Gaiman’s series immediately felt like something unique. Here was a love letter to literature, the fantastic, the history of magic, philosophy, and, of course, comics as a medium, and this resonated with readers—not only longtime buyers of comics, but readers who might never have picked up a comic before.

    In some ways, as Berger reflects, its initial stories felt “conventional” in its featuring of DC characters and themes of “[r]evenge, battle, quest fulfilled,” but it also had bizarre iconoclasms, like “a mysterious and powerful yet harebrained bunch of occultist and hangers-on, a bizarre ‘sleeping sickness’ that affected seemingly random people—in an ambitious tale that took these characters through several decades of strange and tumultuous changes. Conventional stuff? Not at all.”

    In the hands of a lesser writer, Berger notes, The Sandman might have simply transformed these themes into that of a “B-level fantasy/horror title.” Instead, it was simply the start—and an occasionally rough one at that, compared to the polish of later volumes—of something that, like all great art, has layers of possible meaning that shift in unexpected ways as we look at it from different angles.

    Here was a comic that did it all—so why wouldn’t it eventually appear on TV or in cinemas?

    A series with such complex themes and references might conceivably put off certain readers, but instead, it quickly became a cult classic, and then a mainstream touchstone in the world of literary graphic novels. That the series focused on the Endless, a family of quirky, compelling anthropomorphic personifications of big ideas—Dream (Lord Morpheus), Death, Desire, Delirium, and Despair, amongst others—doubtless was part of its appeal. These ideas are universal, accessible to any and all, yet Gaiman’s transformation of them into highly distinctive, idiosyncratic characters—or “points of view,” as the comic puts it—helped make the comic feel at once like a kind of cosmic family drama and a work of high art, while also avoiding any air of exclusive pretentiousness. Here was a comic that did it all—so why wouldn’t it eventually appear on TV or in cinemas?

    The comic’s complexity and idiosyncrasy was part of the problem; it was simply difficult to adapt without oversimplifying things or otherwise risking losing an audience with limited attention spans. Still, as early as 1991, Warner Bros. was trying to do just that, and although Gaiman initially refused, unsure about the prospect of adaptation, he had relented by 1996, when he finished writing the series (though it would continue through spinoffs by other writers), when Warner Bros. decided to try a Sandman movie. This project seemed more promising to Gaiman, but it fell apart quickly, as the director Roger Avary couldn’t agree on a script with the producer Jon Peters.

    In 1998, Peters infamously attempted to make the movie once again, this time by making a number of bizarre changes to the plot, the most garish of which was transforming Dream into a horrific villain fit for a slasher movie. Unsurprisingly, Gaiman rejected the pitch, noting that Peters’s attempt was “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.”

    A few later attempts similarly fell apart, until Netflix took up the mantle, following on the heels of a charming adaptation of Good Omens, a comic novel co-written by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, and one that Gaiman was heavily involved in. (He later noted that he would be less involved in Sandman’s TV production, but more involved than he was in an adaptation of another of his novels, American Gods, which hadn’t come out the way he wished.)

    In some ways, Netflix’s adaptation was destined to divide viewers.

    Adaptations are always complex; what works in one medium is never guaranteed to feel the same in another. Like translation, adaptations often find themselves faced with a complicated choice between simple fidelity and attempting to capture the spirit of something, particularly when a work’s nuances don’t seem to work as well, or at all, in another language or medium. Consequently, there’s no such thing as a “definitive” adaptation or translation of a text, because there are always multiple paths to consider, and being faithful to the source material is not always the right way to go (nor is it always the wrong way to go). Ultimately, you are creating something new—closely related to the original, certainly, but new in its own way.

    I’ll admit that I was nervous about the show before watching it, not because I had any doubts about the source material—it’s one of my favorite graphic novel series, and I’ve always felt a deep connection with the character of Death, who I’ve written about at length—but because it seemed so challenging to adapt. Ultimately, Netflix’s version hews fairly close to its source material, but it also revels in the visuality of its medium, presenting viewers from the very first minutes with some stunning camerawork, costuming, and set design.

    For fans like me, it was at once a relief and a kind of love letter from Gaiman to his readers. It captures the feel of so many of its core characters—perhaps most of all Dream’s quirky but wise sister Death, even though she only appears in one episode. Death, like a number of other characters, has had their appearance slightly shifted from the comics; she is a pale white goth girl on the pages, but portrayed by a Black woman here (Kirby Howell-Baptiste). Dream’s librarian and confidante is flipped into a Black woman (Vivienne Acheampong) as well, while the character of Lucifer is portrayed by a white woman (Gwendoline Christie), amongst other relatively minor tweaks.

    These casting choices initially caused a predictable furor on social media, despite the fact that Death, at least, has no definite form; all of the Endless siblings may appear different from one person to the next, something literally seen in the case of Dream both in the comics and briefly in the show, when he is seen as a Black man through the eyes of a former lover. Gaiman progressively ignored the criticism of these shifts—shifts that are scarcely even noticeable once the show begins, given how resplendently everyone embodies their roles onscreen. There are also moments of queer romance that weren’t in the books, which, as a queer viewer myself, I loved, and which also felt as natural as could be in The Sandman’s world. Personally, I couldn’t get enough of the show.

    But not everyone feels the same. The reaction has been, perhaps predictably, divided, with some reviewers overjoyed by the adaptation’s fidelity and finesse, seeing in it an instant fan-appeasing classic, and others convinced that it, like Lord Morpheus, puts viewers to sleep. The latter view seems slightly more popular in viewers unfamiliar with the source material, who found themselves at once baffled and bored.

    “Some comics are better left off screen,” a humorless Washington Post review reads, while USA Today’s headline declared it “gorgeous but “a total failure.” An IndieWire reviewer dismissed it as “all worldbuilding and little else,” a show you would miss little of “[s]hould you fall asleep at any juncture.” And in one of the most remarkably risible responses of this kind, penned by an incurious curmudgeon from the Globe and Mail with a headline declaring the show “a scandalous waste of money,” the reviewer goes so far as to brand it “sleep-inducing piffle,” “expensively made hooey,” and, in a memorable conclusion, “overwrought and underwritten hocus-pocus poppycock.” It is a curiously energetic reaction to a show that is, we are led to believe, the equivalent of rainbow-colored Ambien.

    It is at once the work of a Renaissance man and something accessible to anyone who is willing to spend time with it.

    In some ways, Netflix’s adaptation was destined to divide viewers. If it stuck close to its source material, it would almost certainly confuse those less familiar with its extensive—and, at times, esoteric—references to literature, philosophy, formalized magic, and the occult; if it tried to turn the comics into a fast-paced thriller primed for bingeing, it would lose something vital for ardent fans. This, really, is what the show probably needed to be for it to embody Gaiman’s dreams—and, with that, its oneiric main character. The Sandman comics are introspective, somewhat slower-paced—not because they lack action or intrigue but because they are, at their core, about Dream’s subtle yet profound evolution as a character, seen through his interactions with mortals, demons, eras, dreams, and nightmares—and, of course, his memorable siblings.

    Gaiman acknowledged as much in a hotel lobby in Turin in 2003, when he was asked to summarize the entire series in 25 words or less. His answer was telling. “The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die,” he declared, “and makes his decision.” The Sandman, then, is about change more than anything else, and while countless shows also, of course, focus on protagonists who must undergo deep shifts in their sense of self, Gaiman was never concerned with creating a made-for-TV thriller. It is thrilling, both in its moments of stunning action—how to not feel existential anxiety when Dream faces off against Lucifer for his helm?—and in the way that it is at once the work of a Renaissance man and something accessible to anyone who is willing to spend time with it.

    I don’t say any of this to suggest that the show is perfect to me; you can love something and still see flaws without rejecting it outright, because that’s, well, human. I picked up early on that the narrative might be confusing to viewers unfamiliar with the source material, and I could see how its at-times episodic introduction of new characters who then disappear might leave some unsure of where to focus. I’ll grant that there’s a slowness to the show, particularly its first episode, that may have influenced Netflix’s unusual decision to include a season preview after episode one—one filled with screaming, burning skin, hellfire, and all the hallmarks of a more traditional thriller.

    For some critics, this curious preview was evidence that Netflix didn’t have faith in its own show and had to lure viewers who presumably would be bored and bewildered by the end of the first episode. And there may be some truth to this; Netflix, after all, has been hemorrhaging subscribers, and in a landscape so unimaginably chockablock with content, much of it undoubtedly fun and addictive, it’s a bold gambit to spend a great deal on a show that defies some of the norms of what typically makes a show “bingeable.”

    Certainly, the production has aspects of bingeability: fantastic visuals, a quite literally beautiful cast, characters who embody their originals even while standing out for being gender-swapped or portrayed by an actor of a different race. These salient moves, along with some genuinely gripping episodes—particularly anytime we get to see the Corinthian, a nightmare created by Dream who has escaped into the real world and is living as a serial killer who carves out and devours his victims’ eyes—place the show in what superficially seems like a more conventional streaming landscape.

    Sure, it may have divided viewers, but why should art need to appease and excite everyone at once?

    At the same time, the show doesn’t go out of its way to explain its source material’s finer points, and its unevenly long episodes generally take their time. To me, the episodes don’t feel too slow, though they clearly were outright glacial to certain reviewers; instead, they felt like part of a slow evolution to realize the world and characters of the comics to a (tweaks aside) surprisingly faithful degree. And whether or not Netflix set out for the show to realize Gaiman’s wishes for a deeply atmospheric, contemplative adaptation, something slightly more aimed at fans than first timers, that’s what they’ve done, and I love it.

    Sure, it may have divided viewers, but why should art need to appease and excite everyone at once? Walter Pater’s famous dictum of the late Victorian era—that art can exist “for its own sake”—may not be popular in a century of rampant capitalism when institutions often patronize art tacitly to make profits, and where artists are still all too rarely compensated fairly for their work, if at all—but even amidst all this, art ultimately exists for itself first. Art never needs to please any specific audience; instead, it should be a space in which many people can have different encounters, some of which will be positive, some negative, some mixed, some shifting over the course of a life. We can appreciate art best when we allow ourselves time to experience it for ourselves, not assuming that our reaction must fit into the simplistic binary that so many reviews exist in—raves, pans—but that it can be as mixed and malleable as feels right to us in the moment.

    I find myself thinking now of the Japanese artist Isamu Noguchi’s strange, earthy sculptures, which I had the pleasure of seeing recently at the Noguchi Museum in Queens (where, coincidentally, I overheard another guest chatting about The Sandman). At times, Noguchi’s sculptures look almost indistinguishable from natural rocks—except that they have been gently carved, nicked, bored, or shaved down, some surfaces startlingly smooth and bright, others rough and pockmarked like weather-beaten stone. In this way, Noguchi’s pieces feel at once ancient and alien-futuristic, sometimes seeming like grand carved stones from the early humans who were designing dolmens and fertility goddess statues, but also like they could be the designs of some near-inscrutable alien civilization, old and new and inexplicable as Stanley Kubrick’s black tablet in 2001: A Space Odyssey.

    They are pieces that reward slow wandering. You walk around them, peer inside their cavities, perhaps step through them if they are shaped like doors. Their fronts and backs (though do we even know which is which?) are different, and you notice little carvings and detailing on each as you observe them in all their rough dimensionality. You are encountering something that feels both natural and intentional, and yet some of his pieces are so subtle that you could walk by them without realizing they are art at all, if you aren’t paying attention.

    We can appreciate art best when we allow ourselves time to experience it for ourselves, not assuming that our reaction must fit into the simplistic binary that so many reviews exist in.

    Other sculptures of his are more overtly figural, like a giant coffee table that may seem unremarkable in and of itself but is placed on an elevated platform—so rather than sitting above it and looking down, you are forced to look up at the table, a perspectival shift that first feels subtle, then becomes astonishing the more you linger on it. Noguchi’s lifelong oeuvre forces us to approach his work from multiple, sometimes quietly startling angles; if we simply glance at these subtler works as we walk by, the pose of the bored museumgoer, we are likely to miss an opportunity to encounter something that might force us to pause and reflect on what it means to make art that asks of its viewers a deliberately slowed-down encounter.

    Unrelated though they may seem at first, there’s something of Noguchi’s aesthetic in The Sandman, both comic and show. In a world where we are often asked to be aggressively present in a kind of floodlit ­now, constantly aware of the hot new thing, it can feel daunting to be asked to slow down and spend time with something, coming to your own appreciation of its contours without caring that you might be late to some mythic—and perhaps toxically conformist—party on social media. The Sandman asks us to take it slower, confident that answers will come in time. Gaiman’s work may be visually stunning in both realms, but it’s still easy to miss its hidden details, and you need to be in the right mindset, ready to spend time with it. It isn’t for everyone—and that’s fine, because no work of art needs to be for anyone, and no work of art is better because any one person endorses it, myself included.

    Here’s an adaptation that, to me, tries to be faithful both to the source material and its new medium, conjuring up something that feels quintessentially like the comics while also feeling unabashedly like a television show—and beyond that, like an encounter, like art. If it has failed to persuade other critics, that’s fine. I’m happy to spend more time with it on my own as though it were a thing to walk around, noticing its curious angles and shapes, its light and shadow, and the way that it puts dreams—and nightmares—on the center stage.

    So much of our world, after all, comes from our dreams, our visions, our desires, and our fears, which we then reshape and carve into the art that fills our landscape. We live in a world we dreamt first, then fashioned second. The Sandman can remind us of that, of how powerful those dreams are, if we let it.

    Gabrielle Bellot
    Gabrielle Bellot
    Gabrielle Bellot is a staff writer for Literary Hub. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Atlantic, The New York Review of Books, The New Yorker, The Paris Review Daily, The Cut, Tin House, The Guardian, Guernica, The Normal School, The Poetry Foundation, Lambda Literary, and many other places. She is working on her first collection of essays and a novel.

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