Whenever an adaptation is released there is naturally a lot of talk about what the changes mean. Did the snipping that comes with altering a book or comic to a show or movie make it better, worse, different in a way that’s unrecognizable? What does it mean when these changes came from the creator themself?
That question will likely be on fans’ minds as they watch Netflix’s The Sandman, based, of course, on the beloved comic of the same name by Neil Gaiman, and developed for Netflix by Gaiman (alongside David S. Goyer and showrunner Allan Heinberg), who also serves as executive producer. It might provide some comfort, in a way, knowing that a creator has this much of a hand in a show that went through true development hell to get here. But that’s not to say Sandman is without changes.
“There were things that we’d go, OK, what is important in each scene? And I would talk with Allan about why a scene had been written, about what I was trying to do, about what I meant, about what mattered to me,” Gaiman tells Polygon. “You take a character like Death; what mattered to me was that we cast an actress who can actually convey the niceness, who could convey the emotion, and the idea that you’d fall in love with her just a little bit.”
In Gaiman’s mind, Kirby Howell-Baptiste captured that perfectly; she was the kind of person who, as Death, could generously say, “You know you should look both ways before you cross the street,” and you’d “kind of like her for having said it.” It mattered less that Howell-Baptiste, a Black woman, perfectly matched the character drawn so many decades ago — though Gaiman said that wasn’t always the case.
“I mean, that was one reason why Gwendoline Christie was so perfect as Lucifer. She looks and feels in every way like the Lucifer that Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth drew in Sandman #4. So that alone — but the fact that she could also embody that Lucifer, that she’s brilliant and imposing and really dangerous,” Gaiman says. “That’s good, that’s what we need.”
There were certain updates Gaiman felt were necessary as the story moved to TV. Beyond the optics of casting, the episode of The Sandman centered on Death pulls from the original comic “The Sound of Her Wings” and merges it with a short story called “Winter’s Tale” that Gaiman wrote. In other chapters, Sandman makes a few changes here and there to the story — shying away from the true brutality of the “24 Hours” chapter in alterations to the show’s episode “24/7,” or cementing a singular look for the castle of the Dreaming instead of an ever-changing castle. Martian Manhunter isn’t there anymore.
“We tried reproducing the comics exactly, and it didn’t quite work,” Gaiman said in a Vanity Fair video discussing some changes to the look of the Endless’ domains. “And then we had to think: Well, how would it work?
“The comics were always the bible; sometimes they were more the Old Testament. We let things change, but the things that changed tended to change with the times, or with the need to make something into television.”
Beyond that, many of the actors say they were given free rein to make their characters work for them, working with Gaiman and Heinberg to dial in performances that felt true to “the soul” of the work, the only thing Gaiman felt was important to maintain.
“I think in terms of room to play, so much of it came from discovering the relationships with other characters, because we’ve seen that on the page, but how does it work in real life?” Howell-Baptiste says. “For me, I used the source material in the comics because it’s gold, basically, for my character.
“They gave me the script before they told me who the character was. So my read was really instinctive. And from that, they obviously seemed to really respond and wanted me to run with what I was bringing. So I just felt a lot of freedom and liberation from Neil and Allan to play and explore.”
Jenna Coleman, who plays Johanna Constantine, agrees, although her character is much changed from the book iteration. For her Constantine, now seen at the top of her game and in service for the royal family, it was a deliberate move to embrace the change for the character.
“We’ve seen various Constantines, there’s been various interpretations through lots of different mediums. And I think it was a very deliberate reason that I was tasked in terms of Neil and Allan’s vision, and a very deliberate move and departure away in terms of costume,” Coleman says. She notes that her callback audition was with Gaiman, which “was sort of like I’ve never had such a green light in my entire life.”
“I’m sure, you know, like so many adaptations are so separated from their creator. Whereas […] The Sandman is Neil’s dream, both the 1989 comic for the beginning of it, and now, to this show that’s on Netflix,” Coleman adds. “He has directly taken his work and reimagined it. And so for me, just having him around and knowing that we had his seal of approval — that allowed us to be much more free in our work.”
Additional reporting by Tasha Robinson.