Tue
Dec 17 2013 3:30pm

Will Warner Bros. Ruin The Sandman?

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.

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18 comments
Athreeren
1. Athreeren
"Puny humans! Your weapons cannot harm Morpheus, the Lord of Dreams!"

Yes, that was in the script for a Sandman movie. Want to revise your judgement?
Athreeren
2. uiwPIUWBiuuwhiuwh
Obviously this won't affect the comics, but I really am scared by this. Unlike Sherlock Holmes and Dracula, the Sandman isn't some important piece of cannon that people still respect no matter how bad reimaginings are. Most people won't have heard of the series until it gets potentially ruined on the big screen. Best to just not make an adaptation, or at least put a lot of time into getting Neil on board, and keeping it as accurate as possible. A full length holywood movie is completely the wrong format to adapt it in anyway.
Liz J
3. Ellisande
Yes, thank you. Some "Fan Purists" are so exhausting (see also Hobbit Movie Whining, which is pretty much a meme at this point). The original still exists. At worst, they make a terrible movie. That would be a shame, because I want it to be good, but it doesn't ruin the Sandman, or a book, or any other source material. Given our culture's insatiable need for content, it's only a matter of time before someone new takes a run at it, whatever it is, anyway. Good or bad, it's not likely to be the only version ever. Besides, if it's terrible, people will forget it exists - mostly because no one will go see it anyway. How many people today even know there was a terrible Captain America film in the 90's? well, you do now, but it's basically nothing but a footnote these days.

I'm also really tired of Premature Fan Panic which is that "OMG X IS GONNA SUCK". Can we not just wait and see if the project even happens, before we cast ourselves into pits of cynical despair that Nothing Will Be Perfect and They Won't Make the Movie in My Head Woe. I realize this is the Internet and everyone needs an Opinion, but good heavens, people taint their enjoyment by pre-judging everything two years before it even exists.
Athreeren
4. witchypoo
The Sandman has already ruined The Sandman. Morpheus is a passive, elitist and disengaged character. Somethings just don't make good movies and Sandman is one of them.
Athreeren
5. RoberX
Gaiman is involved. I doubt he will let them ruin it.
Athreeren
6. Narvi
@1 With the right actor, that moment could be AMAZING.
JOSEPH HOOPMAN
7. hoopmanjh
@6 If spoken with the precise combination of world-weariness and ennui.
Athreeren
8. Elrec
@1,6, and 7
I imagined Destiny reading his book and by chance, stumbling over the ritual to imprison Dream. He sneers.
Athreeren
9. BDG
I wonder if the Greeks ever complained about Homer's Iliad?
alastair chadwin
10. a-j
@3
What you said.

Stardust is one of my favourite Gaiman novels and Stardust is one of my favourite films. The latter departs from the former in many ways and so I now have two versions. I've never understand why some people complain about that. Similarly, there is the original Mary Poppins book and the Mary Poppins film which is very different and aren't we lucky to have both.
Athreeren
11. hng23
Meh. Alan Moore's books V for Vendetta & From Hell were terrible movies, but that didn't affect the quality of the books. If the movie looks to be crap, just ignore it & read the books again.
Francisco Guimaraes
12. franksands
Leslie, thank you for this. I think I'll bokmark this article and send it to whoever complains about an adaptation in the future. No matter how horrible, unrecognizable, poorly made this adaptation might be, the original work is still there. Want to remove the mental image the adaptation have made? Just go back and read the original. I did that recently because of the new collection of TPBs and it was still as awesome as the first time I read it. If we prohibit adaptations, we seriously limiting creativity and a new look on old stories.

Instead of being afraid, imagine how awesome would be to watch Morpheus and Lucifer in the movies? Cain and Abel?
Athreeren
13. GrB
I'm afraid of the potential of one mediocre movie to ruin the ability for further stories to be told about the character and world in movie format, a la Constantine.
Francisco Guimaraes
14. franksands
@13 I disagree. I think the horrible Constantine movie is an incentive to any director that thinks "I can do better". Problem is, everybody at Hollywood is only thinking about super-heroes.
Joe G
15. joeinformatico
@2 uiwPIUWBiuuwhiuwh,

Sales of the Sandman trades will probably increase five or tenfold if the movie is anything but a bomb. So even a mediocre Sandman movie will introduce a lot of people to the comics who otherwise would never have any incentive to pick up a 20 year old series.

@9 BDG,

They sure did. Plato's Republic discusses the negative influences of the Greek myths. And all the Athenian dramatists were writing different interpretations of the same mythic stories.
Matthew Abel
16. MatthewAbel
I think you could make a good Sandman movie. I'm not so sure about JGL being cast as Dream - I've always wanted Doug Jones - but he's a capable actor.

It doesn't really matter for many of us - this is your basic "shut up and take my money" situation.
Athreeren
17. Ashcom
What you left out is also that, of course, in the Basil Rathbone movies, Dr Watson was played by the elderly Nigel Bruce, and afterwards nearly all adaptations until recently depicted Watson as an elderly man. In the novels, he obtained his medical degree just a few years before meeting Holmes after being invalided out of the army, so he would have been most likely in his twenties, or early thirties at most.
Athreeren
18. GuruJ
Yeah, chalk me up to the camp of Shame To Waste The Opportunity But No Biggie too.

I'm surprised that none of the commentary I've read so far has picked up on the fact that Sandman looks different depending on who he is appearing to. True, in the novels he does have a "default" appearance but that's just a stylistic thing.

If you did Sandman as I'm Not There it would instantly move me from "meh, another comic book treatment" to "I will definitely have to see that".

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