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A couple of months ago, Joseph Gordon-Levitt made an announcement that shocked the comic book world: that he is involved in a film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s 75-issue comic book series, The Sandman. In what way he’s involved is uncertain, but reports say that he might not only be starring in the movie, he may also be directing it. At the end of February, Warner Bros. announced who they’ve hired to take on the challenging task of actually writing the thing. Jack Thorne, cowriter of How I Live Now, will be attempting to squeeze this sprawling tale into a 120-page script. Is this a recipe for success?
If these rumors are true, Warner Bros. will be taking a colossal risk. Levitt made his directing debut only last year with Don Juan, a film that you’re not likely to find in the fantasy/ adventure category of your Netflix recommendations. Jack Thorne’s writing credits, while impressive, are also somewhat limited, as he too is still in the early part of his sure-to-be long and illustrious career. Now consider the fact that, much like with Watchmen, filmmakers of the last 25 years have been flirting with the idea of a Sandman adaptation only to eventually opt out. While by no means an impossible feat, it’s sure to be a tough one. Here are some of the challenges that I think face the Sandman creative team.
Sandman is, by far, the most unconventional comic book series I have ever read. Everyone knew that the Watchmen movie would be about a retired group of heroes investigating the murder of one of their own; similarly, everyone knows that the Preacher television series will be about Jesse Custer’s quest to find God and make him pay for fleeing from heaven and abandoning his responsibilities—these are stories with clear-cut central plots, something that Sandman doesn’t offer in the same, straight-forward manner. I’d sooner classify it as a character study, but even that doesn’t make this adaptation any easier.
Morpheus, after all, isn’t your classic protagonist. His character arc over the course of the series could quite easily be mistaken for a perfectly straight line—don’t get me wrong, I think he does grow over the course of the series. It’s subtle, however, and that’s exactly how it’s intended to be. Morpheus is one of the Endless, a group of eternally existing beings who wield immense amounts of power. As may or may not be expected, the Endless tend to approach the world of humans as a human might approach an ant farm. Over the course of the series, Morpheus softens a bit. I just worry that in an adaptation that will be closer to 75 minutes than 75 issues, that subtle arc will appear much more pronounced, and therefore more extreme.
The length of the adaption is most certainly a concern. I wonder how determined they are to squeeze the entire series into one film. Information on the project is very limited. Therefore, a trilogy might not be totally out of the question. It would doubtlessly help in attempting to capture the same sort of magic that Gaiman did in the original run. In the comic, there are countless stand-alone issues detailing isolated stories of one or a few of the 60+ characters that appear throughout the series. To top it all off, many of these characters make cameos big and small all the way through to the end, and some play a crucial role in the final events of the story.
For this very reason, Sandman feels more like a collection of many small stories rather than one big one. Sound familiar movie buffs? Roger Avary, a contributor to the Pulp Fiction screenplay certainly thought so, when he attempted to adapt Gaiman’s masterpiece in the late 1990s following the success of Tarantino’s cult hit. That’s certainly the closest I’ve ever seen a movie get to the Sandman format—a handful of isolated stories that intersect at critical moments. Is this the direction we can expect Jack Thorne to go in? It might well be the most effective means of capturing the wildly imaginative world that is the Sandman Universe.
What’s unfortunate about the sole ownership of Sandman by DC, and therefore Warner Bros., is that there are some inevitable creative limitations. These limitations are all but guaranteed to prevent the best possible adaptation of this universe that us fans might never see come to fruition. For a couple of years now, there have been talks of an American Gods HBO series. American Gods is not owned by Warner Bros. However, Neil Gaiman has admitted that it takes place in the same universe as Sandman, and there are crossovers to prove it. Morpheus’s sister, Delerium, and her dog Barnabas, make a small cameo in American Gods, but are not referred to by name.
Of course, a good adaptation should be able to stand on its own. By no means should this film be answering to the comic, and it would be a damn shame if the comic were necessary reading to fully understand or follow the film. There are plenty of fans out there that are outraged about Sandman’s cinematic debut, but I’m not one of them. It would be foolish to allow this future-blockbuster to dictate how people look at the triumph that is the original 75-issue run. On a similar note, don’t walk into the theater expecting to get the book either. It will be interesting to see how Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Jack Thorne tackle this creative challenge, and I think I speak for a lot of people when I say I wish them the very best.