The Sandman: How an ‘unfilmable’ comic made it to Netflix

It is one of many of Gaiman’s stories about his turbulent relationship with Hollywood, and more specifically The Sandman’s perilous journey through 33 years of development hell. It is a journey, however, that has, at last, come to an end – thanks to a new 10-part television series airing on Netflix. “Sandman needs time,” says Gaiman, who was personally involved in developing the show. “If somebody had ever tried to make a movie of Game of Thrones, that wouldn’t have worked either. You need space for a big story. You need time to care about characters. In Sandman season one, we had 340 speaking parts in those first 10 episodes. That’s an awful lot of people to get to know and we’ve only just begun. We have adapted, so far, 400 pages out of 3,000.”

First published by DC Comics in 1989, The Sandman is widely considered as one of the smartest, most challenging and imaginative comic books ever made. It follows Morpheus, the lord of dreams, as he tries to rebuild his kingdom after being imprisoned by humans for nearly 100 years. He travels to Hell to meet Lucifer; he tracks down a rogue nightmare called the Corinthian, who has teeth for eyes; he makes a deal with William Shakespeare; and embarks on a long, personal quest to undo the sins of his family the Endless, eternal personifications of aspects such as Death, Desire and Despair.

Largely split between the waking world and the realm of the Dreaming, the comics are told with an unflinching sense of maturity, depth and ambition. These are thematically complex works – stories about the profound nature of stories – drawn, coloured and inked by various artists but unified by an aesthetic that is gothic, surreal and melancholy. Upon its release, the series was a critical and commercial hit, and was hailed (perhaps unfairly, considering Alan Moore’s 1972 series Swamp Thing) as the leader of a new wave of comic books: those that, rather than being for kids, carried a more serious, literary weight. 

It is also a work that Gaiman himself is fiercely proud of. “I feel like Sandman is my legacy,” he says, before going on to describe it as “my baby”. As Gaiman would discover for himself, however, that is certainly not how Hollywood considered it. Instead, throughout the 90s and much of the early 21st century, The Sandman was viewed as less of a precious and unique child, and more as yet another superhero cash cow. 

The aborted adaptations 

“It all began in 1991,” says Gaiman, “when I was sent to meet one of the executives at Warner Bros and she said, ‘there’s talk of a Sandman movie’. I say, ‘please don’t do it. I’m doing the comic and it would just be a distraction’. And she says, ‘nobody has ever come into my office and asked me not to make a movie before’. And I said, ‘well, I am’. Then she said ‘Ok, we won’t make a movie’. That lasted until about 1996,” – the same year that Gaiman’s original run of Sandman came to an end.

Screenwriters Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio, who would go on to create Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, were hired to write one of the first drafts. The pair were huge admirers of the comics, and the script they delivered aimed to capture the essence of the source material, including a vignette set around the dreams of cats. “We were certain that we could convey the mood, intelligence, sensibilities and brilliance of Neil’s work,” Elliot once wrote on his blog Wordplay. But when the duo handed in their script, they were told that Warner Bros hated it so much that it was deemed “undeliverable”, meaning that they would be denied their fee.

The issue, they theorised, is that between being commissioned for the script and finishing it, film producer Jon Peters, who had produced Tim Burton’s Batman, had got involved in the project, and didn’t seem to understand it. Writing on Wordplay, Elliot said: “My speculation on why the script was termed ‘undeliverable’: a) the studio wanted a free re-write, addressing the ‘Dream of a Thousand Cats’ section (which, if they’d treated us respectfully, we would have done); or b) Peters Productions wanted us off the project because we didn’t incorporate his single, off-the-cuff and incredibly lame suggestion that a bunch of teenagers at a slumber party holding a séance are the ones that capture Dream; or c) both.”

“There was a little while where Jon Peters was getting people to write scripts with giant mechanical spiders in,” says Gaiman. “He had three projects, which was Sandman, Superman and Wild Wild West. And he only had one idea, which was a giant mechanical spider.” Like The Sandman, Tim Burton’s proposed Superman Lives, which would have starred Nicolas Cage, went through its own version of development hell. The mechanical spider would eventually make its way into famed box office flop Wild Wild West.

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