The Sandman showrunner discusses the Netflix adaptation's story changes
As the king of all stories, Dream of the Endless knows that they change in the telling. Allan Heinberg knows that too.
The showrunner of Netflix's The Sandman tells EW that he's wanted to adapt the legendary comic by Neil Gaiman, Sam Kieth, and Mike Dringenberg ever since he first encountered it as a college student. After years of writing for TV shows like Grey's Anatomy and The O.C. (where his real-life comic obsession fueled that of Adam Brody's Seth Cohen), Heinberg finally got to make his dream come true. But he quickly encountered a problem.
"I've now been making TV and movies professionally for 24 years, so I reread the books specifically with an eye toward, 'How am I gonna be able to do this?'" Heinberg tells EW. "Then I called [producer] David [S. Goyer] back and said, 'I can't do it. It's impossible.' In order to pull this off, so much of it would have to change in terms of how we approach the material."
Heinberg's fears were ultimately assuaged. After adapting The Sandman almost word for word as an Audible audiobook, Gaiman was fully on board with changing things more for the TV version. Some of the page-to-screen changes ended up being cosmetic, like casting Black actresses Kirby Howell-Baptiste and Vanesu Samunyai to play characters (Death and Rose Walker, respectively) who were depicted as white in the original comic. But others had to do with the way the stories were told.
Take the series' fifth episode, "24/7," an adaptation of The Sandman #6 (a horror story called "24 Hours") that finds a powerful madman using reality warping powers to terrorize the customers of a 24-hour diner. Heinberg previously told EW that he and the other filmmakers wanted to give the villainous John Dee (David Thewlis) a more understandable motivation. But they also decided to eschew the narration that is so key to the comic's version of the story and to the Audible version (where Gaiman himself fills the role of omniscient narrator). Aside from some voiceover in the first episode from Dream actor Tom Sturridge, Netflix's The Sandman has no narration.
"'24 Hours' is a perfect example of a story where most of the dialogue is people ordering their meal from a waitress, and most of the drama is handled by Neil as the narrator, who's telling you what's going on in their hearts and in their dreams," Heinberg says. "We essentially had to rewrite it and do it as a play, where if you're sitting out in the audience and you're watching people come on stage, everything has to be revealed in their interactions with each other. We can't tell the audience what's going on at any point. We didn't veer away from the material, but the way that it's presented and the way that you meet the characters is very different."
The 10 episodes of The Sandman now streaming on Netflix adapt the first 12 issues of the comic. But while the first several are mostly one-off short stories (meaning that viewers only get to spend one episode with Howell-Baptiste's Death, for instance), the second half is the adaptation of a longer story called The Doll's House. Viewers, therefore, really get to know Samunyai's Rose and her friends, but there were still plenty of adaptational changes required — especially because Dream is often absent from the events of The Doll's House in the comic.
"It was a pleasure for the department heads, because those last four episodes behave like a TV show, where you have one cast and you actually have sets that you go back to," Heinberg says. "Whereas in the first six episodes, we have six different casts and six different worlds. As a TV show, a serialized drama, we really wanted to do both and be able to tell all those stories, but we couldn't tell any story that didn't push Dream's story forward."
In the comic, Rose's brother Jed (Eddie Karanja) is held captive by two monstrous entities named Brute and Glob, who defy Dream's authority and style themselves the lords of their own dreaming fiefdom. They make Jed believe that he's the sidekick and ward of a superhero called the Sandman (a.k.a. Hector Hall) and his wife, Lyta. These were originally references to contemporaneous DC superhero comics, so the show had to adjust that context.
In the Netflix show, Jed's story line is separated from that of Hector (Lloyd Everitt) and Lyta (Razane Jammal). Jed is the Sandman in his own right, watched over by a renegade nightmare named Gault (Ann Ogbomo) instead of Brute and Glob.
"In the comic, it's this tribute to the Jack Kirby and Joe Simon's Sandman character," Heinberg says. "At the time there was this book called Infinity Inc., and Hector and Lyta were the leads in Infinity Inc. So if you're a fan of the Justice Society and their kids, that's a huge high point of Sandman colliding with the DC Universe. But our show isn't set in the DC Universe, so this required crafting. Brute and Glob became Gault, who I love, and Anne's performance is just heartbreaking."
Hector is long dead, but Lyta sees him in her dreams, separate from Jed. Dream's handling of Gault's disobedience provokes disagreement with his lieutenant Lucienne — a conflict that has even more weight given that Lucienne is also depicted with a different ethnicity and gender from the comics — and gives him stuff to do on screen parallel to Rose, who has been searching for her brother in the waking world for years.
"Neil set us free to basically build Jed out and make Jed our Sandman instead of Hector," Heinberg says. "It was heavy lifting and hard to figure out, but that's what the job was: How do you take the disparate ends of The Doll's House and really all make it one story, so that Dream's tracking everything throughout?"
Heinberg continues, "that was the biggest challenge of The Doll's House: How to make it Dream's story, and then how to get it out of the DCU? But obviously the way that we did Jed as the Sandman, it is shot through with my love for the DC Universe. Yeah. His building, his dream cave, was a pleasure to make. There are toys everywhere, old school comics everywhere."
Viewers can decide for themselves how well the show met the challenge. The Sandman is streaming now on Netflix.
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