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GLEN WELDON, HOST:
The fantastic new Netflix series "The Sandman" is based on a much beloved comic book series about an immortal and immensely powerful being known as the Master of Dreams. Like that landmark comic, the series introduces us to a world of fantastic adventure where dreams and nightmares come to life. It's a world where abstract concepts like dream, death, desire and despair take the shape of bickering siblings. But beneath all its hugely imaginative trappings, "The Sandman" is ultimately the story of a man who loses everything and has to fight to get it all back, even if that means facing down hell itself. I'm Glen Weldon, and today we're talking about "The Sandman" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR.
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WELDON: Joining me today is iHeartRadio producer Joelle Monique. Hey Joelle.
JOELLE MONIQUE: Hi, Glen.
WELDON: And also here is writer and film critic Walter Chaw. Welcome back, Walter.
WALTER CHAW: Hi, Glen. Hi, Joelle.
WELDON: All right, let's get to this. Tom Sturridge plays the Sandman, aka Dream. He's one of a handful of beings known as The Endless who oversee various aspects of human life. Despite his power and immortality, he finds himself suddenly imprisoned and spends over a century in mystical captivity, away from his duties. His extended absence wreaks all kinds of havoc, both in the realm of dreams that is his kingdom and in our waking world. Over the course of the 10-episode season, we see how he escapes, how he sets about regaining his powers and repairing the damage his absence has caused. He's helped in this endeavor by his faithful librarian, Lucienne, played by Vivienne Acheampong, and by his raven Matthew, voiced by Patton Oswalt. But there are a lot of folks who'd like to see the dream king overthrown for good, including an escaped nightmare called The Corinthian, played by Boyd Holbrook, and the literal devil, Lucifer, played by Gwendoline Christie.
The original comic was written by Neil Gaiman, with art by Sam Kieth, Mike Dringenberg and many other artists over the years. It ran from 1989 to 1996 and changed comics in a fundamental way, opening the medium to a new and wider audience. Fans have been waiting decades to see this story on the screen. There have been many doomed attempts over the years, but this Netflix series is the one that finally made it. Its transition to the screen was overseen by Gaiman, David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg.
Joelle, there's a lot riding on this, not just for the show, but for me. Every so often, I forget that I have a dream job. And the notion of talking to you two about this show, which I never thought would happen, which I've been waiting for my whole life, based on a comic that I have a deep, personal connection with - it's just - it's mind-boggling. So, Joelle, break my heart. Tell me you hated it. What did you think?
MONIQUE: Glen, I can't do it. I can't break your heart because my heart is too wound into this incredible narrative that probably saved my life. I do have a way too close connection to this property.
WELDON: Oh, thank God. OK.
MONIQUE: And I was scared to say yes at first because I was like, I don't know if I can properly critique the show, given how much I love the comic. But I did it anyway. (Laughter) I was selfish, and I loved it. I love the show so much. I mean, from casting to - oh, my gosh - production design. I had no idea how they were going to pull off so many fantastical landscapes. I didn't know how you were going to possibly get a sandman that was convincing, you know? He's so dry and closed off on the page that I wasn't sure it could translate to screen. But they did it by bringing in some of the best comic book adaptation writers, you know, including David S. Goyer and Allan Heinberg and Lauren Bello, who did great work on "Foundation." I loved it. I loved it so much.
WELDON: OK. All right, Walter, it's down to you. What did you think?
CHAW: I loved it, too. I can also not break your heart, Glen.
WELDON: OK. All right. I appreciate that.
CHAW: It's amazing to be in this room with you guys because I have a deep, deep emotional connection with this comic book series as well. I was so scared. You know, over the years you hear all these rumors. Joseph Gordon-Levitt had the property for a long time.
WELDON: Yep. Yep.
CHAW: Neil Gaiman has spoken over the years. He said he was just spending all of these decades shooting down bad ideas for adaptations. Like, they wanted to make him a literal superhero at one point. And I was like, please don't ever make this if you're going to do that. So I actually approached the series with a lot of trepidation. And I was afraid that I was going to hate it and I was going to have to be the person here who had to say, you know what? It was just maybe not a good idea to ever change, you know, the media. But, boy, is this good. And it seems to have grown up at the same pace that I've grown up.
CHAW: It's kinder.
WELDON: That's exactly what I was thinking.
CHAW: It's so much more hopeful than the comic book starts out as. The changes it makes from the source material are all to the benefit of deepening the characters, of deepening the relationships. Matthew is developed. Sandman's relationship with the ravens are developed. Really what it is is it creates this thing that's instantly accessible, I think, to a broad audience. You don't have to have, you know, 35 years of geeking out over this specific property to really appreciate the kindness of this series, the wisdom and maturity of the series - a beautiful work.
WELDON: I completely agree. Look, so here's what we're saying to all you nervous fans of "The Sandman" out there. We were among your cohorts. You can relax. They nailed it. I mean, yeah, it took forever. And, yeah, there was all kinds of aborted attempts, but this just works. It succeeds, as we're all saying, as a faithful presentation of the look, the feel, the story.
But far more importantly - Walter, I echo exactly you - it succeeds as a work of adaptation. I know that because I recently listened to the Audible audiobooks, which are not so much adaptations as transcriptions. They adhere with a white-knuckle grip to every jot and tittle of those opening comics. And, boy, they're dated and overwritten, and they don't work. This has a much looser grip on the source material. It breathes. The changes, both big and small, that have been made, they work to streamline and focus the story and update it, sure. But it's now kind of honed to fit the specific demands of serialized television in a real way because, again, I did not want to see a "Sandman" movie because I know it's serialized narrative. It needs to be serialized.
Every choice they've made in the process of adaptation bends that story toward something that is more emotionally expansive, more humane, and gives it a purpose, a driving toward where the story ends. Because remember, when he started writing this, he didn't know what he was doing. I mean, he didn't think he was going to get past eight issues. Everything they've done to change the storyline and to collapse characters into each other and to streamline it is pushing us toward an ending that we know is going to come. It's not a very nervous young writer trying to prove himself. It is so much more deeply engaged, so much more thoughtful. Yeah. OK.
WELDON: Can we talk about the casting? Let's talk about Tom Sturridge...
WELDON: ...As Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams. He nails it.
MONIQUE: Yeah. You get the look first. When he was doing a lot of the Comic Con press tour, I was like, OK, this is - the stature, the face, it's very much like the comic book. This is visually accurate. But I could care less about that because Dream is who you're following throughout this entire story. And as we said at the top, he's so stoic and cut off. And it's not a spoiler to say that he's captured. Earlier, we already talked about that. So he's captured for a hundred years, and he doesn't say anything during that entire time. That's a large demand on an actor to show the weariness of time. But also, you're sort of this godlike entity who has no actual, real concept of time. And so how do you pass that time?
You're just so locked in to what he's doing. It's subtle. It's lived-in. And as he starts interacting with more folks - particularly, he meets a man who doesn't die - I'll put it that way - and they start this friendship. And his transformation through the years of that friendship and how he just - I don't know. It's, like, subtle but you're lured in, but you're constantly sort of - especially if you don't know the story, I think - leaning in to be like, what is his next thought? And how is he going to navigate these super-weird waters? And it's just done so, so well. And I'm really glad that he took the gig...
MONIQUE: ...And is leading this project. I think, you know, there's a lot riding on this. It's a huge franchise. They wrap it up nicely so that if Netflix says this is it, you're kind of OK with, like, OK, this is the full story. But if you're a fan of the comics, you're like I need more. And I really feel like Tom can carry this through to the end. I really liked him.
CHAW: Yeah, he carries so much with just very little. I mean, by the very last episode of this, you see a real arc to him. You know, from the very beginning of it, where he was very stoic and - Joelle, to your point - just wordless, literally speechless, to the very end of it, where he's accepting that he could be wrong, accepting that he's maybe made mistakes. The whole of it kind of reminded me of these late-career albums that people put out. Bryan Ferry or Bruce Springsteen or Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave - they came out with these wise albums they could not have made when they were 30 years old or 25 years old. And they're full of forgiveness and mercy, and they really value life.
One of the ancillary characters in the comics that's just sort of summarily executed in the comic, in this adaptation, is given a thing that protects her from ever getting hurt. That's a remarkable transformation, not only for Tom Sturridge and great performance, but it's a remarkable transformation for the project, for the piece. To say, look, every life is now actually quite valuable to me in this adaptation - and that's a big change. And that's something that happens, I think, to all of us, where we're young and we're like, I want to see that blood everywhere, it's awesome, amazing...
CHAW: ...To the point where you have a family and you have loved ones and you have kids and you've experienced loss. I think it's almost a good thing that it took this long for it to be adapted because now Gaiman comes back to this and says, look at what I wrote back in 1989. And it's really foundational and important to all of us. It's great. But I've grown up, and the world has changed.
And now I have something different to say about this convention of serial killers. I have something different to say about this really stoic Robert Smith-looking, from The Cure, character. And the show - I was stunned midway to be crying, and even before the episode with Death. I was crying a little bit because of his wanting to apologize for being a jerk and saying, yeah, maybe you were right. Maybe I need to talk to my librarian. I screwed up, man. It's amazing. And I think the comic series gets there eventually. This show got there immediately, and I was ready for it. It's beautiful.
MONIQUE: You know, Neil Gaiman's 28 when he writes this. It's 30 years later, and you can feel Gaiman throughout and a lot of his growth. I picked up the book when I was 23, 24 for the first time. This remains my favorite Gaiman property. And it's like a second coming-of-age almost. You know, if your first coming-of-age is about discovering who you are, I think your second coming-of-age is, like, how do I want to be in the world? And that's really the text of the book. And it impacts every single character. And every single character is completely embodying the tone that they need to bring in order to sell this story.
And I don't want to spoil too much because going in not knowing anything is really, I think, the best way to do it. But there are characters without eyes and with - and replaced by teeth, which shouldn't work. It should just - it's a terrifying, literal nightmare. Like, even there's a mother-son relationship that evolves so beautifully and with such grace. And I take your point, Walter, that the growth in time is necessary. And if we can talk a little bit about some of the changes, you know, I think everybody - or most people have a familiar connection with John Constantine, even if it's, you know, just the "Constantine" movie from, like, the early 2000s, they make him Johanna Constantine.
So it's a woman instead, which becomes very interesting and compelling to see a woman who identifies as Catholic in the modern era but who's also fighting demons in churches. It brings an entirely new layer to the grizzled detective that we are so hyper-familiar with in film. What if we make the grizzled detective a woman, and she's queer, and she's trying to figure out, how do I own up to my past mistakes and what does that look like? And I think because there's that element of forgiveness and that wisdom of years lived woven into the story, it's just - it's almost brighter than the original comic, which is so mind-blowing to think about. It's really good, y'all.
WELDON: Well, let's be honest here - OK? - 'cause, you know, we talk about this comic run, these 75 issues, as, you know, the game-changer that they were. What you might forget is that what that comic became - this giant, expansive clash of myths and monsters and all these different pantheons and, really, a story about redemption, it didn't start off like that. It started off as a grubby little horror comic - now, a very literary one, a very high-minded one. But it was written, as we've mentioned, by a very young writer still finding his voice, still stepping out of the shadow of people like Stephen King and Alan Moore.
And the sixth issue of the comic, which is the one that is presented here, too, it's set in a diner where a character uses one of Morpheus' tools to torment the people around him. You go back and read that now, it was highly praised at the time, but man, that is - it's still harrowing, but it's kind of facile. It's kind of unearned because it's a writer trying to see what they could get away with. It's glib. It's clever. He wanted to shock his readers. He didn't want us to feel for these people.
Those horror story elements are still in the bones of this Netflix series, but all the choices they've made are to dig deeper and to resonate more truly. So it's still using violence against children and women and marginalized communities to spur, you know, the white knight into action. But those characters are real characters, are people with roundedness and agency and just real lives, you know? And so they hit deeper. What happens to them, you feel. You're right, Joelle. That relationship between a mother and son that is featured here is real in a way that it just wasn't in the comic. I'm going to say this is an improvement, not just for the television, but I think this really improves on the source material.
CHAW: Totally agree. You know, and to cast David Thewlis in that diner sequence is just a stroke of genius. In the comic, if you remember, it's just sort of like a scribble of ill-defined things. The original eight-comic run, all the way through to the introduction of Death in the comic book series, has a lot of callbacks to the DC universe, and it seems like this has stripped all of those out, you know? And I love that because this is no longer a puzzle box for DC fans, and I think it needed to be.
When I first read the initial run - I'm that old - when that diner sequence came, I remember buying the - my copies at the comic book store and going home and - it was called "24 Hours," I think - and just being blown away by it. And so for me, the litmus for this series - without having revisited it beforehand - was are they going to be able to carry it off? Are they going to be able to give me the same feeling of dread? And they exceeded. It's so much better than it was. And going back to something that you were talking about, Joelle, with the John Constantine transformation into Johanna Constantine, it's more than just a gender swap because her relationship now is kinder. In the comic, the girlfriend runs off and steals all the equipment. She's a junkie. She steals stuff. She's - here, it's a tragic breakup, and it's Constantine's fault.
CHAW: And they go back, and he has to reckon with this. And so even the introduction of Matthew, the Patton Oswalt voice, Raven, is so great.
MONIQUE: So good.
CHAW: I mean, heartbreaking when Matthew comes in, and we feel like, oh, man, this is so complicated for all of these people, even this raven who's a people.
CHAW: All of this is new for this adaptation, and all of it is a product of, honestly, an author that I wasn't sure had it in him. I loved "The Sandman." I haven't loved his novels. I haven't loved "American Gods" or the other adaptations. I was afraid that he was going to be like a Ray Bradbury or a Clive Barker, the sort of God in text that could never really, truly be translated into different media. Proved me wrong. This is grown-up. And yeah, women are brutalized. Minority cultures are brutalized. No buts about that - you know, trigger warning. And yet, I found that there is a character arc that is truly kind and generous that makes me feel like, OK, now it's more of a representation of the world and how difficult it is for those populations rather than a glorification of it.
MONIQUE: Or to your earlier point, just an opportunity for a white savior to come in and magically fix these problems. These people, as much as they are - live difficult lives, they're also frequently exalted into incredible people who endure. You know, Kirby Howell-Baptiste is Death. She's walking around, guiding people through the process of dying, which is so nuanced and heartbreaking. And yes, I cried there, too, Walter.
We can talk about the other great gender swap. Lucifer is played by Gwendoline Christie, our tall goddess. You might remember her from "Game Of Thrones." She is so fabulous in this role. The costume design - I love the wings. They're so beautiful and elegant, and they feel angelic and yet demonic at the same time, which is really selling this character who is, of course, a fallen angel. And you love watching every second of her. There's also - Sarah Niles, who you would remember from "Ted Lasso," plays a character in one episode, and she'll just knock your socks off. She is so fabulous. She's just a mom trying to help a stranger. And it's so moving.
And all of the casting is so exquisite. You just want everyone to get out safely and then go on, like, past these encounters with Dream and have these wonderful lives, which I think is just - it's so rare in TV. I hope we lean more into shows like this, where we're seriously considering what does it mean to adapt a property and really pushing the boundaries of a binge-like service. I think it's a different experience of watching TV, and I think really playing into the art style of that has benefited this series.
WELDON: Look; we are all in the tank for this. That is clear.
WELDON: But let's be real - not everybody's going to be. There are going to be fans of the comic who think, you know, oh, I wish this was a feature special effects budget as opposed to a Netflix special effects budget. There are going to be some fans of the comic who are fundamentalists who are going to object tiresomely to every change that has been made in race, sex, gender, whatever because even without acknowledging - without realizing that they're making things better. But here's the biggest open question before us - what are people who have never read this comic, who do not know the story, these characters - I confess, I have absolutely no idea how this is going to land on them because, you know, it throws a lot at you. What do you guys think?
MONIQUE: I hope they can enjoy it. I would say, for sure, if you're the kid who was best friends with your English teacher in high school, you're going to love it.
MONIQUE: There's a lot for you to devour and enjoy. I think if you're the kind of person who's really into mysticism or Greek tragedies or anything like that, you're going to have a lot of fun. And I hope that if you're a person who really enjoys special effects, you can appreciate the artistry of what was done here because as much as it may not be as glossy as you're used to seeing in, say, like an MCU film, I do see a finished product that has a very direct visual narrative to tell, and I think it's done really beautifully. And there's something to say about visual effects as just art. I hope people are able to follow along and enjoy. There are a ton of characters, but I think that the writers have done a really good job of rounding out this story. So it feels easy to go from one to the other, I think, as long as you're paying attention. Don't watch on your phone. You will get lost.
WELDON: Yeah, don't watch on your phone. And understand that the story changes. Like, the setting we get in the first episode is not the setting we get in the others. We stay with Dream, but everything else changes around him. Walter, what do you think? How are your non-nerd friends going to find this?
CHAW: I don't have any of those, Glen. But...
CHAW: ...I think that it'll get a lot of people into the comic. It'll be instantly engaging, I hope, for its maturity. If you can get past the first five minutes of this where it's just sort of swooping around and you're looking at the dreaming and the kingdoms and the big CGI things that we're used to, it stops doing that almost immediately, and it's immediately like a "Game Of Thrones." It's - I would guarantee you, most of the people who started and ended up with, you know, several seasons of these things or several sequels to "The Lord Of The Rings," not everybody had read the books ahead of time...
CHAW: ...But because the stories are compelling and the relationships in "Fellowship Of The Ring" are what we remember - you know, the special effects are dated.
CHAW: We watch these things because the stories are lovely. And the overriding message, which is really well taken now, in the series is hopefulness. We have a capacity for change, and we have a capacity for forgiveness. And it's such a simple thing that's so easy to forget when we're so angry at the other side.
CHAW: How do we ever heal the rifts that are between us and our country and our families even sometimes? And this provides a road map that if this angry Robert Smith can be forgiving...
CHAW: ...There's hope for us. So I think - I hope - I hope anyway, my non-nerd friends - theoretical non-nerd friends will approach it with an open heart and say there are elements that are supernatural, but I'm going there because of the story which speaks to me. Hopefully, it speaks to everybody.
WELDON: You know, that's interesting because my first instinct was to tell folks who might listen to the intro about dreams walking among us and death and despair as people, to say to them, look; if you heard that and you're like, yeah, not for me, follow that instinct because it clearly - this thing is...
WELDON: ...Not going to be for you. But you both have convinced me that folks who maybe don't go for fantasy might give this a shot. I think there is a strong enough backbone here in heart and empathy and just plain storytelling that I hope it'll grab them. That's the dream, anyway. See what I did there?
WELDON: We want to know what you think about "The Sandman." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Joelle Monique, Walter Chaw, thanks to both of you being here. I love this conversation. I love you both.
CHAW: Such a pleasure.
MONIQUE: Aw, love you, too, Glen. Thanks (laughter).
CHAW: Love you back.
WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. This episode was produced by Mike Katzif and Taylor Washington and edited by Jessica Reedy. Hello Come In provides our theme music. I'm Glen Weldon, and we'll see you all tomorrow.
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