News broke over last weekend that Joseph Gorden-Levitt was leaving the team producing the New Line Cinema adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Vertigo Comics series The Sandman, and considering Gordon-Levitt was planned to be producer, director and star… there are real questions as to what happens now.
As disappointing as this news may be, considering both how much this was a labor of love for Gordon-Levitt and the enthusiastic support for the project from Gaiman himself, there may be, in fact, a silver lining to this apparently bad news. To explain that, we need to travel back in time a bit.
This is, of course, not the first time that an attempt to adapt The Sandman has hit a snag, stalled, or crashed and burned. The 1990’s were full of attempts to bring Morpheus/Dream and the Endless to the screen, with the most notorious attempt overseen by producer Jon Peters. Peters was behind the Tim Burton Batman films, and fans of Kevin Smith will recognize his name as the man who insisted that Smith write him a script where Superman neither flew nor wore the familiar costume. There was also the bear attack and the gay robot sidekick for Brianiac, but the less said about those things, and the whole Superman Lives debacle, the better.
Here, Roger Avary — co-writer of True Romance and Pulp Fiction — was set to direct from a script by Ted Elliot and Terry Rossino (Pirates of the Caribbean) which would combine the first two arcs of the comic, but clashes with Peters would see Avary fired, and a succession of bad scripts driving the project into the ground. It got so bad that Gaiman would describe the final script Warner Bros. sent him as “easily the worst script I have ever read.”
From then until mid-2013, The Sandman was trapped in development hell, with Gaiman telling fans that he would rather there be no film if it wasn’t done right. In December of 2013, word came that Gordon-Levitt, David S. Goyer and Gaiman would be producing an adaptation, with Jack Thorne (The Shades) writing the script, and based on the enthusiasm and clear love of the material, fans seemingly had reason to get excited. And then, after Goyer announced in October of last year that another writer was coming on board to revise Thorne’s script, we find ourselves where we are today, and Gordon-Levitt’s departure from the project.
Interestingly, he made the announcement the day after the name of the new writer was announced, which has led to the inevitable speculation that the addition of Eric Heisserer to the project was the reason he left. Heisserer penned the scripts for the Nightmare on Elm Street remake and The Thing prequel, and while neither of those projects got much love from genre audiences, there is no direct evidence that he was the cause of Gordon-Levitt leaving, and Heisserer has stated that he has actually been involved with the project for months before the announcement was made.
Of course, “creative differences” can mean a lot of things, but usually it means the studio has started to make changes that someone doesn’t like. With both Gaiman and Goyer apparently still involved, it could be that or something like the studio wanting a different director or star, or even scheduling conflicts. In any event, it seems that the film is going forward.
Which is a shame, actually.
As much as I would love to see a great Sandman film, I wonder if this wouldn’t be a better time to stop and reconsider the format here. In 2010, director James Mangold (3:10 to Yuma, Cop Land, The Wolverine) pitched a TV series to HBO, and Warner Bros. Television started work with Supernatural creator Erik Kripke on a version, but by the fall of 2011, that seemed to be dead as the focus shifted back to making a feature film. While there are some good arguments for making a film, perhaps it would serve the material better to return to the idea of a television series instead.
The biggest issues are money and time. A film of The Sandman would clearly require a decent-sized budget, but with a 1 1/2- 2 hour runtime, the kind of story being told comes with some pretty problematic restrictions. First of all we have the fact that Morpheus isn’t anything resembling a superhero, and doesn’t — with some very rare and very minor exceptions — have anything to do with the larger DC Comics universe (Vertigo is a DC imprint). Critically acclaimed as it is, and beloved by millions of fans as it is, The Sandman lacks the cultural allure of a Batman or a Captain America. A faithful adaptation of the character and the stories would give audiences a “hero” who isn’t actually all that likable for a pretty sizable portion of the early arcs of the series, and that matters. The character arc of Morpheus’ journey is actually a critical part of the story, and cramming that into a feature-length film would do a terrible disservice to the character.
There’s also the matter of his origin: He doesn’t really have one. He and the rest of the Endless have existed since just after the Creation of the Universe, and they aren’t remotely human. And if you bring in the Endless at all, you’ve just added his brothers Destiny and Destruction, brother/sister Desire, and his sisters Delirium, Despair and Death. If they are doing anything resembling the “Preludes and Nocturnes” storyline, they’re also going to be adding Hell, demons and Lucifer himself. As much as I always think that studios have a real problem trusting audiences, even if Vertigo and New Line Cinema are convinced that the viewers will follow along, that’s a LOT to cram into at most a couple of hours.
Consider the television format for a moment, especially in light of shows like Penny Dreadful, Daredevil, Jessica Jones and the upcoming Preacher and American Gods. All of these are extremely challenging stories, but they also have time to tell those stories, and develop the characters in them. Over 13 episodes, the first season of Penny Dreadful managed to work in demons, vampires, werewolves, Frankenstein and his monsters, and Dorian Grey. Jessica Jones brought us an incredibly detailed and accurate portrayal of a woman — superpowers or not — who had been physically and emotionally abused, and was struggling to overcome that damage. Daredevil brought us both a hero whose insistence on just not stopping is his greatest power, and a version of the Kingpin whose own story was just as compelling and developed as his heroic adversary.
Would creating the otherworldly aspects of The Sandman be difficult on the budget of a TV series? Probably. But the strength of Gaiman’s storytelling would carry a lot of the weight, and the arcs of the comic could be far better recreated if given time to breathe over several hours. Discovering what makes Morpheus so compelling a character would be much easier to do if audiences can watch him grow from the arrogant personification of Dream to the tragic father of Orpheus and regretful lover of Nada, whom he condemned to Hell unjustly. The time spent on developing the dangerous rivalry between Dream and Desire and the gentle kindness of the unstoppable Death would be incredibly compelling television. Death could finally get her own miniseries adapted as a series of episodes — instead of the film version of Death: The High Cost of Living being essentially a dead project — and the 13-episode series format would lend itself well to the occasional anthology format the comic itself had.
For now, we know that Gaiman remains involved with the film version, and that is a good sign, but in the end, whatever the format, the best we can hope for is a version of The Sandman that satisfies both the fans and audiences that know nothing about Morpheus and his siblings.
That’s a tall order, but hopefully – and please forgive the pun – not just a dream.