It was announced yesterday that Joseph Gordon-Levitt is developing a motion picture for Warner Bros. Entertainment based on Neil Gaiman’s Sandman comics. Should fans be alarmed?
Of course not. It is simply not possible to “ruin” the original Sandman comics by any adaptation. To date, Morpheus has survived becoming a statue, a trading card, an action figure, and countless fan drawings. Yet the comics remain in print, and new collections appear regularly. Similarly, Sherlock Holmes has been the subject of over 200 films; Dracula has been depicted in almost as many. None of these films have affected the original books—they’re still sitting on bookshelves, awaiting discovery by the next generation of readers.
Some hard-core so-called Sherlockian purists express their shock and dismay at the Warner Bros. films based on the stories by Conan Doyle. Others are equally upset at the BBC’s Sherlock and CBS-TV’s Elementary, both series set in modern day. The irony is that many of these “purists” discovered the Sherlock Holmes stories through the Basil Rathbone films, set in England of the 1940s, or the radio broadcasts of Holmes stories (almost all newly-written) in the 1940s and 1950s. In fact, although over 100 films starring Sherlock Holmes had already been made, the 1939 Twentieth Century Fox version of The Hound of the Baskervilles was the first to depict Holmes in Victorian England. So much for “pure” adaptations of Holmes.
In the same way, many scholars of vampire literature have scoffed at the Francis Ford Coppola version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1992), complaining that it strays from the original text of the novel. More than 100 versions of Dracula have been written for stage and screen, and truthfully none—with perhaps the exception of Bram Stoker’s own 5-hour theatrical adaptation that was never commercially produced—have ever been true to the novel. Even the BBC’s largely-faithful adaptation in 1977 starred Louis Jourdan as the Count, a far cry from the old man with hairy palms and a long white moustache depicted by Stoker.
In the literary world, new stories about old characters are called pastiches, a sophisticated term for fan fiction. All of this—fan-fic, pastiches, adaptations—expands our vision of the original material by re-imagining the characters in new eras, new situations, experiencing new adventures, that (if we're being truthful and honest) help modern audiences to better understand the original characters. If well done, these excite and entertain the reader, without in any way diminishing the original story. If poorly done, at least they express honest admiration for the source material.
In short, Warner’s adaptation of The Sandman to film cannot possibly ruin the brilliance of the Sandman comics. Whether it is good, bad, or indifferent, the existence of the film and the attendant publicity can only bring new admirers to this great work of art. It can no more damage the original than might, say, footnotes.
Leslie S. Klinger is considered to be one of the world’s foremost authorities on those twin icons of the Victorian era, Sherlock Holmes and Dracula. He is the editor of The New Annotated Sherlock Holmes (W. W. Norton 2004-05), winner of the Edgar Award for Best Critical/Biographical Work and nominated for every other major award in the mystery genre. He is also the editor of The New Annotated Dracula (W.W. Norton 2008), as well as the four volume The Annotated Sandman (DC Comics 2012-14). You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.