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'The Sandman' gets flawless adaptation

Story about dreams that inspire all our stories

Once upon a time, there was a family of seven virtually godlike siblings, known as the Endless, each of whom embodied a core concept of mortal existence.

From oldest to youngest, they were Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium, the last of whom was originally known as Delight.

During World War I, British aristocrat and occultist Roderick Burgess sought to capture Death, but instead accidentally bound Dream, aka Lord Morpheus of the Dreaming, whose captivity lasted long enough to rob the majority of the mundane 20th century of its hopes and dreams.

Even after Dream regained his freedom, in the relatively recent "modern day," he was afforded scant relief, since he found his spiritual realm of the Dreaming - the collective unconscious we all visit in our dreams - had fallen into catastrophic disrepair.

Now, the only way Dream can restore the Dreaming to its proper state is to track down his totems of power - a ruby, a helmet and a pouch of sand, the last for which he's nicknamed "The Sandman" - all of which Burgess stole, and the old magician's descendants scattered far and wide.

Along the way, Dream needs to collect some of his errant creations, who have used his absence from his cosmic office to visit humanity in the waking world ...

This sums up the first 10-episode season of "The Sandman" streaming series, which premiered Aug. 5 on Netflix, drawn almost directly from the first 16 (of 75) issues of "The Sandman" comic, published from 1988-96 by DC Comics, and co-created by writer Neil Gaiman, who also created "Coraline" and "American Gods," in addition to co-creating "Good Omens" with Terry Pratchett.

I'm not sure I can overstate how moving and influential "The Sandman" was for us who grew up reading it, enough that, if you know anyone who had a goth or punk phase between the late 1980s and mid-1990s, you should check in with them so they can shed happy tears to you overseeing a live-action adaptation that gets the source material so right.

For all the grousing a handful of small-minded fans have done over the streaming series gender-flipping and racially diversifying a number of previously white male characters from the text, all those changes were enthusiastically approved by Gaiman. himself. So many key scenes in the streaming series appear to have been lifted straight from the pages of the comic.

Indeed, "The Sandman" is a rare case of an onscreen adaptation whose revisions improve upon the original text in almost every way, in both creative casting and story structure, except for Jenna Coleman. Coleman is a fine actress (recognizable from "Doctor Who" to "Victoria") whose portrayal of the fun character of Johanna Constantine, a roguish social butterfly who dabbles in the dark arts, is marred only by borrowing too deeply from the background of Johanna's relative, working-class exorcist John Constantine (played most recently by Matt Ryan).

Even this criticism feels nitpicky, given the number of sterling performances "The Sandman" delivers, from its effective stunt-casting of Mark Hamill voicing Mervyn Pumpkinhead, scarecrow custodian to the Dreaming, and comedian Patton Oswalt voicing Matthew the Raven, the once-human loyal sidekick to Dream on his missions, to its more load-bearing dramatic roles.

The standouts include:

• David Thewlis as Burgess' mentally unstable, supernaturally powerful son, John Dee.

• Gwendoline Christie as the genteel and vengeful Lucifer Morningstar, ego-bruised ruler of Hell.

• Boyd Holbrook as the serial-killing Corinthian, a charismatic literal nightmare with a creepy crooked grin (three of them, in fact) who's been playing hooky from the Dreaming.

• And Tom Sturridge as the imperious, grudge-holding, stubbornly unyielding Dream, whose meticulously mussed hairstyle and sculpted alabaster physique not only mirror his handsome comics counterpart, but who somehow recreates the black word balloons that Dream speaks in on the comic pages, without his natural voice being altered in any way.

And yes, depending on how old a fan of “The Sandman” one happens to be, we’ve fantasized about everyone from Winona Ryder to Christina Ricci donning Death’s all-black outfit, but Kirby Howell-Baptiste supplies all the lighthearted empathy and beautiful smiles that Gaiman’s Death requires.

Episode 6, “The Sound of Her Wings,” combines issues eight and 13 of the comic, by opening with Dream accompanying his older sister Death on her rounds of escorting recently deceased souls to the afterlife, leading into an extended flashback montage of Dream’s centuries of friendship with Robert “Hob” Gadling, a medieval drinker unwittingly granted immortality after Death and Dream overheard his amusing declaration that he would simply go on living by refusing to die.

In a season full of solid episodes, “The Sound of Her Wings” deserves all the Emmy awards.

Because “The Sandman” concerns our dreams, it’s not merely one story, but a story about the dreams that inspire all our stories, but even when it’s not serving to frame a makeshift anthology, “The Sandman” succeeds because its central character arc poses the same compelling question as that of “The Sopranos.”

Whatever decent intentions they might possess, Dream of the Endless and Tony Soprano are both kind of bullying jerks, who only ever begrudgingly embrace personal growth or evolution, so we’re left wondering whether these lords of their respective domains can ultimately redeem themselves, especially since it’s hammered home from the first, by their own narratives, that one must eventually either change or die.

Whether god or man, what are the limits of a soul’s capacity to transform for the better?

Those who have read the comic have witnessed one future for Dream, so we can recognize how the streaming series has already planted the seeds for his potential fate, especially with Dream seeking favors from the literal trinity of the Fates of ancient Greek myth, but this adaptation comes with no guarantees that it will follow Gaiman’s same script onscreen.


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