Plus, hear an exclusive clip from the new audio series featuring James McAvoy as Dream and Kat Dennings as Death.

By Christian Holub
July 14, 2020 at 09:00 AM EDT
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Michael Kovac/Getty Images; Audible

The Sandman is a story about change. The iconic comic series — originally created by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg — focused on Morpheus, the immortal lord of dreams (he himself is even sometimes known simply as Dream). In Gaiman's world, dreams are the source of all stories, so Morpheus' adventures took him (and readers) through a plethora of genres and concepts. There are Sandman issues based on Shakespeare plays, horror movies, and high fantasy — sometimes all at once. On top of that, the innovative multi-media covers by artist Dave McKean told readers to be ready for anything. Now, 31 years after it first began, The Sandman is going through some changes of its own. This week sees the release of Audible's audiobook adaptation of The Sandman, and there's that previously-announced Netflix TV adaptation that should be on the way whenever our own world returns to normal.

Audible's Sandman audiobook casts Gaiman as an omniscient narrator, while James McAvoy gives voice to Morpheus. EW caught up with Gaiman to discuss the adaptation process and how the audiobook differs from the TV series. Below, you can listen to an exclusive clip from the series, taken from the iconic "The Sound of Her Wings" chapter which introduces Morpheus' incredible older sister Death (Kat Dennings), whose name belies how vivacious and full-of-life she is.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You’ve previously done audio adaptations of your novels Neverwhere and Good Omens. What was the difference translating a comic book into that format?

NEIL GAIMAN: The biggest difference is they are made up of words, while comics have pictures. Having said that, comics are weirdly close to audio drama. They sort of work in very similar ways. One of the first adaptations of my stuff I ever did was taking the graphic novel Signal to Noise, which I did with Dave McKean, and doing it for BBC in the mid-’90s. We’re proud of what we’ve done. One of the things I was able to do was give Dirk Maggs, who did all of the heavy lifting on this, the original scripts for Sandman. I had to go into long-forgotten parts of my computer and wander down dusty corridors with cyber cobwebs to find files in Word Perfect 4.1 format, and translate them out of Word Perfect and send them over to Dirk. What was great about that was Dirk got to take instructions I had written 30 years ago for artists to tell them what to draw, and take lines from that to me as the narrator. We would take lines that had been written so only the artist would ever see, and those lines would then become part of the description, part of the background. What was really fun for me was how little we changed. For years and years, people who have vision issues have told me how much they wish they could read Sandman. Audio drama is incredibly inclusive. I do love that we’re bringing the books to people who otherwise would not be able to read them.  

There’s this fun trade-off that comes with the audiobook. You’re losing the visual, but you’re gaining sound effects that you don’t have reading comics. Like in the “Sound of Her Wings” episode, you don’t have the visual of Death’s whole look, which is such a big part of her character, but you do have the sound effect of her wings beating, which brought a new flavor to a story I’ve read multiple times before. What did you like about those trades?

There are things that you gain and things that you lose. You lose the visuals, you don’t know what this character looks like, you lose amazing art and artists. But on the other hand, I can read Sandman #6, “24 Hours,” without flinching. I know every line of it. But listening to it was chilling. I wouldn’t have thought that "24 Hours" could affect me again. But this version was so dark and so creepy, it made me wish it would end differently. Listening to “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” was genuinely exciting. I felt like I was making a movie in my head. There is something to be said for real-time drama with world-class actors.

It was a really interesting process looking at voices and actors. We had people saying, “oh you obviously cast Kat because she looks like Death,” and weirdly by the time we cast her, I’d forgotten that. A lot of it was about who was available. Kat was shooting a TV series Dollface at the time, but she managed to pull it off for us. 

The biggest revelation for me was James McAvoy, because we had not cast Morpheus initially. We had to start recording before we had a Morpheus. But once we did cast James, he wasn’t available until I think March, so we were going to record everything without him and then put him in. Then that ended up getting delayed, because the day they were meant to go into the studio, the world went into lockdown. So we wound up having to get recording equipment over to his place, and Dirk had to direct him over Zoom. Having said that, all these episodes that I’d heard in rough form with other people playing Morpheus hadn’t worked. The moment we had James McAvoy playing him and they were cut together, all of a sudden magic was there. It was real magic, it was astonishing. 

Aside from Morpheus, which actors’ performances surprised you the most?

Morpheus was funny because it was like, the last thing we put in was the foundation. For me the most surprising moment in the studio was probably Michael Sheen’s Lucifer. Michael was a huge fan of the comics, reading them since he was a kid, so Michael knew that Lucifer had been drawn as the young David Bowie. I think of Michael Sheen as one of the greatest actors of his generation, which he is. I forget he is also one of the greatest impressionists. All of a sudden, I’m standing here in the studio, and Michael Sheen’s mouth is open, and David Bowie’s voice is coming out. It was so weird and amazing. 

For me, it’s always interesting revisiting Lucifer’s first Sandman appearance, because I’m just so eager to get to his character development in Season of Mists, which is probably my favorite Sandman volume. You’ve talked before about how the first eight or so issues of Sandman were you still figuring out the tone of the series. When you have to go back to the beginning for an adaptation like this, are you frustrated by those early stories? Or does it all feel of a piece?

Because we aren’t changing things, it feels like we’re doing an adaptation of a classic audiobook. I know it gets better, I know it goes to different places, and I feel very much like if you like this, just hang on because oh my gosh, we’re gonna take you to so many amazing places. With the TV show adaptation with Netflix, we’re getting to play in a slightly different way. With Netflix the idea is very much “okay, let’s say it’s 2020 and we’re starting a Sandman story, how do we do it?” It’s wonderful getting to use and reuse characters from the original, and if you are a Sandman fan then there are going to be amazing things waiting for you. Some of them will be things you know and love, and some of them will be things you’re not expecting at all. It’s a different way of telling it. Whereas for the audio drama, we’re not trying to reinvent it or reshape it. We’re trying to take a series of graphic novels and do a very literal adaptation for everybody. 

For the last couple years, you’ve been overseeing this new line of Sandman Universe books at DC, with different writers and artists coming in to play with different pieces of the Sandman world. In the wake of that, was it like coming back to Morpheus and these original stories after all these years, in both the audiobook and TV show?

It’s always like revisiting an old friend and it’s always wonderful. I forget how well I know Sandman, and how well I know this work. Then I’m sitting there answering questions or clarifying things or reading Dirk Maggs’ scripts, and it’s always a joy. I remember when I stopped doing Sandman, I explained it to people by saying “look, I want to leave while I’m still in love.” I never want to get up in the morning and go “oh great, time to write Sandman.” Writing Sandman was always an adventure, and always a delight. That’s how I feel with everything I get from Dirk Maggs on the Audible adaptation, and everything I get from Allan Heinberg on the Netflix adaptation. I’m so lucky! There have been lots of attempts over the years to make bad Sandman movies and things. All I would do is explain to people that I would rather that no Sandman movie was made than a bad one. I feel like now I’m in the best of all possible worlds, where I get to have adaptations made that are faithful either literally or spiritually. We get to make magic. 

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