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Why Bringing Neil Gaiman's 'Sandman' to TV is a Bad Idea

by Maureen Ryan, posted Sep 2nd 2010 1:00PM
Battle stations, comic-book nerds: A possible TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman's 'The Sandman' is in the works.

This is probably a bad idea.

Of course, this adaptation is still in the early stages, and as is the case with most properties being developed for television, it's entirely possible (if not probable) that the project will never get made.

Still, there are quite a few reasons to treat the idea of a TV version of 'Sandman,' which tells the story of the Dream (or Morpheus) and his similarly powerful siblings, with extreme caution. I say that despite reading that 'Supernatural' creator Eric Kripke may take the lead role in the development of the 'Sandman' series.

Those who've read my work in the past will know that I'm a serious 'Supernatural' fan, and whatever ups and downs that show may have had over the past five seasons, Kripke's ability to mine the moral and emotional potential of genre fare has proved to be exceptional.

So it's not that I think Kripke (who isn't officially on board yet) isn't the right guy for the job. It's just that I'm not sure the job can or should be done. After the jump are just five of the reasons why I think a 'Sandman' adaptation is probably a bad idea.

1. Money. The world created by Gaiman and the artists he collaborated with is imaginative, exotic and downright strange, and despite the fact that special effects budgets have come down and many visual flights of fancy are now achievable on TV budgets, I can't see any broadcast network putting up the kind of dough this project would require. If they did, they'd probably ensure that 'Sandman' was changed beyond recognition ("This week on 'Sandman,' Morpheus investigates the murder of two attractive, scantily clad co-eds who once dreamed of kissing each other!"). Cable networks might be willing to take a chance on this kind of distinctive fare, but it would probably be too expensive for any network aside from HBO, which already has a pricey fantasy series in the works (George R.R. Martin's 'Game of Thrones' arrives in 2011). And it's worth noting that a previous HBO attempt to make a 'Sandman' series foundered.

2. Format. 'Sandman' is essentially an anthology of different tales, many of which build on what came before, but the tales it tells vary widely and ramble across time and space (and that's just part of the appeal of the story). Would a TV network take a chance on an anthology-style set of stories rather than on a straightforward, linear tale? I doubt it. If 'Sandman' were jammed into the latter mode, it would choke off a lot of the digressions that make it so interesting. AMC has bet big on "The Walking Dead' -- that comic-book adaptation, which arrives Oct. 31, has already gotten a second-season pickup before a single episode has aired. But from what I understand of that Robert Kirkman tale (which I haven't read but hope to soon), it's more straightforward than the trippy 'Sandman.'

3. Expectations. The fans of a classic novel or comic book probably already have the dream version of that story in their minds (that's one reason that 'Game of Thrones' fans are avidly following -- and worrying about -- the HBO adaptation). For every successful adaptation, a la the Peter Jackson 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy, there are dozens of page-to-screen translations that fall flat. Sometimes that's because what works spectacularly in one arena may just not hold up in another -- many of the qualities that made 'Watchmen' a classic graphic novel just didn't translate in the film version that came out last year. 'Watchmen' was long thought unfilmable, and Zack Snyder's hamfisted, literal-minded attempt to tell that multi-layered story didn't exactly put that theory to rest.

4. Courage. Even if the writing staff, directors and actors were on board to make the most kick-ass version of 'Sandman' possible, network executives, most of whom are quite risk-averse these days, would still likely quake at the thought of actually making this weird story about super-powerful beings and their odd adventures. I was actually relieved when a television adaptation of Bill Willingham's amazing comic-book series 'Fables' died on the vine. To make that story of fairy-tale characters locked in an increasingly terrifying war, you'd have to really commit to the idea of Goldilocks as a homicidal revolutionary. I couldn't see ABC -- or any other network -- being OK with that.

5. Characters. Like most nerds, I love the 'Sandman' series -- visually and philosophically, it raised the game of the entire comic-book medium. But Morpheus as the lead character of a television show? I'm not sure I see it, unless it involved the casting coup of the century. Don't get me wrong, the character works well as the anchor of the unconventional 'Sandman' universe, but he's also by turns grumpy, dreamy, haughty and selfish. His sister Death is a whole lot more perky and endearing (no, really) and I could easily see her starring in a series of her own, but hoping for that is probably the silliest dream of all.

What do you think? Would you like to see what Kripke (or possibly another writer) would make of 'Sandman' on the small screen? Do you think it can -- or should -- be done? Sound off in comments.

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#2 is the most persuasive argument - format.

Sandman could and should be a fantastic television franchise - for someone with the vision to not just do Sandman, but, NEIL GAIMAN'S SANDMAN. Translate each collection into a mini-season.

A 22-episode season on the CW network sounds horribly mis-aligned.

6-episode collections on AMC or Bravo or HBO? That sounds correct.

Darabont doing Walking Dead? Hell yeah. Modestly-successful Supernatural person whose name people don't recognize? Uhm...

This current proposal doesn't pass the hell-yeah test. And that's the threshold that should be passed for anything regarding Gaiman's Sandman.

September 07 2010 at 6:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If this was potentially a BBC series, I'd give it a chance at being successful. But I don't see Sandman making it to American TV without a lot of executive meddling, regardless of the network involved.

September 04 2010 at 10:06 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I agree that there are quite a few things that could go wrong in a Sandman adaptation, but I would still love to see one attempted, whether live action or in an animated format. I would hope that whomever was involved would go to as much effort as might be required to try to get it "right". But ultimately I would prefer that someone try and fail, then to not ever see anyone try, for fear of failure.

The project, however it might turn out, wouldn't diminish the original material in any way, and would most likely encourage others to read the series for the first time. No matter how badly we might think that Watchmen turned out, it's publicity resulted in tens of thousands of people reading the original for the first time.

Imo, The Walking Dead is dissimilar from Sandman. TWD tells a fairly straightforward, linear and serialized story, centering around the same group of characters (though some die or leave and new ones enter). While Sandman sometimes employs those elements, it just as often doesn't. Visually, each couldn't be much different. TWD has employed only two artists in a realistic black and white format (and the second one for 70 consecutive issues), while Sandman was always in color and employed numerous artists in a variety of styles.

Imo, both are at least good (and arguably excellent) stories originating in the same medium, but I don't believe that they have much else in common.

September 02 2010 at 9:54 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love the comics, but like you, Mo, I don't think it would be possible to adapt it to television. Also, I really don't think Kripke is the person to do it. I love Supernatural, but I don't credit Kripke with any of the moving character and emotional arcs - I credit Robert Singer and the late Kim Manners for the story elements, and Kripke for the monsters, blood, gore and frat humor.

September 02 2010 at 9:31 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I actually think this could be a great show. I'm in the camp that thinks Watchmen was a pretty good adaptation, as good as it will get IMO. Good size budget, fanboy director, Showtime(As previously mentioned, HBO is out because of Game of Thrones), it could definably work. Of course, some things are untranslatable, but with a story like Sandman, there are clever ways to bridge the gap. Hell, whoever takes it on could even add material due to the fluidity of the story and characters. This could defiantly rock under one condition: Neil Gaiman MUST BE ON BOARD. No Gaiman, no show, period.

September 02 2010 at 5:29 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mo Ryan

An animated series is actually a great idea. In the right hands, that could be really good.

September 02 2010 at 5:23 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Maxwell James

I could see it working - maybe - as an animated series. But I don't know who would watch it. The market for grown-up animated fantasy television series is not exactly exploding right now.

September 02 2010 at 3:51 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Oh, HELL no. You hit a lot of good points. Can we add "pacing" and "subtlety"?

Sandman is genius; it lives in our dreams, it opens worlds. I wouldn't accept a "Supernatural" or a "Charmed" for this. I wouldn't accept an amusing, entertaining show that bears a passing resemblance to Gaiman's startling work.

Pretty much I'd accept Mad Men and no less. Except, y'know, with swirly robes.

September 02 2010 at 3:28 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

If it's a WB product does that automatically mean it'd be targeted for the CW or CBS? I don't see this story working in a 22 episode series model - and for many of the reasons you noted.

Eric Kripke's a Gaiman geek based on prior comments I've read from him, so I believe he'd treat the material right, or try to, if given the resources and leeway.

But it'd have to go on Showtime, where the expectations would be different, and then you might have a shot at something that could adapt the material for TV in ways that elevate the story - as they have done so well with their adaptation of Dexter from the novels, (or HBO's adaptation of True Blood).

Assuming The Walking Dead lives up to the trailer and the set photos, which all look like they "get it" to me, AMC maybe has the formula for adapting a graphic novel. Hopefully any folks looking at adapting Sandman will learn something from that too?

September 02 2010 at 2:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I love Kripke for giving us 'Supernatural' but I agree with Mo, making 'Sandman' a tv show is a really bad idea.
I don't think it's doable at a TV budget and I'm sorry but neither the 'Watchmen' or any other comic book adapatation were able to impress me.

September 02 2010 at 2:21 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

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