The Sandman: how an “unfilmable” comic arrived on Netflix

It’s one of Gaiman’s many stories about his turbulent relationship with Hollywood, and more specifically, The Sandman’s perilous journey through 33 years of development hell. It’s a journey, however, that has finally come to an end – thanks to a new 10-episode TV series streaming on Netflix. “Sandman needs time,” says Gaiman, who was personally involved in developing the series. “If someone had ever tried to make a Game of Thrones movie, it wouldn’t have worked either. You need space for a great story. You need time to worry about the characters. In the first season of Sandman, we had 340 speaking parts in those first 10 episodes. That’s a lot of people to get to know and we’ve only just started. We’ve adapted, so far, 400 out of 3,000 pages.”

First published by DC Comics in 1989, The Sandman is widely regarded as one of the most intelligent, thought-provoking, and imaginative comic books ever made. It follows Morpheus, the lord of dreams, as he attempts to rebuild his kingdom after being imprisoned by humans for nearly 100 years. He travels to Hell to meet Lucifer; he tracks down a rogue nightmare called the Corinthian, who has teeth for his eyes; he makes a deal with William Shakespeare; and embarks on a long personal quest to atone for his family’s sins, endless and eternal personifications of aspects such as death, desire, and despair.

Widely split between the waking world and the realm of Dreaming, the comics are told with an unwavering sense of maturity, depth, and ambition. They are thematically complex works – stories about the deep nature of stories – drawn, colored and inked by various artists but unified by a gothic, surreal and melancholic aesthetic. Upon release, the series was a critical and commercial success and was hailed (perhaps unfairly, considering Alan Moore’s 1972 series Swamp Thing) as the leader of a new wave of comic books. : those which, rather than being for children, carried a more serious literary weight.

It is also work that Gaiman himself is extremely proud of. “I feel like Sandman is my legacy,” he says, before describing him as “my baby.” As Gaiman would find out for himself, however, that’s definitely not how Hollywood viewed him. Instead, throughout the ’90s and much of the early 21st century, The Sandman was seen less as a precious and unique child, and more as another superhero cash cow.

Aborted adaptations

“It all started in 1991,” Gaiman says, “when I was sent to meet with one of the Warner Bros executives and she said, ‘we’re talking about a Sandman movie.’ please don’t. ‘I do comics and it would just be a distraction’. And she said, ‘no one ever came into my office and asked me not to do a movie before’. well, I am.’ Then she said, ‘Okay, we won’t make a movie.’

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would go on to create Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, were hired to pen one of the first drafts. The couple were big fans of the comics, and the script they delivered aimed to capture the essence of the source material, including a vignette around cat dreams. “We were confident we could convey the vibe, intelligence, sensitivity and brilliance of Neil’s work,” Elliot wrote on his Wordplay blog. But when the duo handed in their script, they were told that Warner Bros. hated it so much it was deemed “undeliverable,” meaning they would be denied their fees.

The problem, they theorized, is that between commissioning the script and its completion, film producer Jon Peters, who had produced Tim Burton’s Batman, got involved in the project and didn’t seem to understand it. Writing on Wordplay, Elliot said: “My speculation as to why the script was labeled ‘undeliverable’: a) the studio wanted a free rewrite, addressing the ‘Dream of a Thousand Cats’ section (which, s ‘they had treated us respectfully, we would have); or b) Peters Productions wanted to remove us from the project because we did not incorporate their unique, improvised and incredibly lame suggestion that a group of teenagers during a slumber party holding a seance are the ones that capture Dream; or c) both.”

“There was a time when Jon Peters was inviting people to write scripts with giant mechanical spiders,” says Gaiman. “He had three projects, which were Sandman, Superman and Wild Wild West. And he only had one idea, which was a giant mechanical spider.” Like The Sandman, Superman Lives proposed by Tim Burton, who would have played Nicolas Cage, went through its own version of development hell. The mechanical spider would eventually make its way into the famous box office flop Wild Wild West.

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