I don’t normally review screenplays – and I especially don’t normally review screenplays that were never produced. But I am making an exception here. Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman has had a long road to being adapted for another medium. A film version languished in development hell for 20-some years before finally getting turned into an upcoming Netflix TV series and an Audible audio drama. One of the writing teams attached to the film was Ted Elliot and Terry Rossio, most famous for writing Shrek and the Pirates of the Caribbean series. In 1996, they wrote a draft of a Sandman film. That draft is publicly available for reading on their website, Wordplayer. It is for this reason that I feel comfortable reading and reviewing the script – the writers have put it out there and, at that point, it’s fair game to be looked at. And, in all fairness, I actually think their attempt at adapting The Sandman is a relatively good one. Obviously, those comics are better suited for a TV series, but as far as film adaptations go, it’s pretty solid. (3.5 out of 5 wands.)
So, this script is a loose adaptation of The Sandman‘s first two arcs: Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House. I say it’s a loose adaptation because it takes the two storylines and mashes them together into one. The bulk of the narrative comes from Preludes & Nocturnes; Morpheus (referred to primarily as “Sandman” in the script) is captured by Burgess and imprisoned for eighty years. During his imprisonment, three totems of his power – his helm, his bag of sand, and his ruby – are stolen. Eventually, he manages to free himself and he has to go on a quest to find and recover his missing totems, regaining his power in the process. Where the elements from The Doll’s House come in are with Rose Walker and The Corinthian, two characters of vital importance in that arc who end up being central characters in this adaptation.
It is also with these characters that this script most veers away from the comics. Sure, you could argue that the very act of combining two storylines that were originally separate into one storyline is already pretty unfaithful, but I’d argue that the film is pretty faithful to Preludes & Nocturnes. Smaller details are changed, but the narrative arc of that story is kept intact in the film. It’s all the stuff from The Doll’s House that gets tweaked and changed into something barely recognizable. Take Rose Walker, for instance. Her entire backstory from the comics is changed in the film. Her grandmother is no longer Unity Kinkaid, a woman who suffered greatly during Morpheus’ imprisonment. Instead, Rose’s mother is now the drug addict who steals Morhpeus’ bag of sand from Burgess. An understandable change, sure, but one that completely uproots Rose’s entire character arc. She doesn’t really have much to do in this film, and it shows, particularly in how quickly she’s booted out of the climax of the film.
The same is true of the Corinthian. He’s still a nightmare who’s escaped the Dreaming, and he’s still a serial killer who doesn’t want to leave the world of the living. But the film also gives him Doctor Destiny’s role from Preludes & Nocturnes, having the Corinthian be in possession of Morpheus’ ruby and wanting to use it to take over the world. Again, it’s an understandable change when you’re wanting to combine these two storylines into one, but it’s one that seems to misunderstand the Corinthian’s entire characterization. Yes, he’s evil, but was he the kind of melodramatic evil who would take over the world like the arch enemy of a superhero? I don’t think so.
Now, to be fair, this script gets a lot of stuff right. Elliot and Rossio manage to capture the voices of Morpheus and the other Endless perfectly. Each of those characters sounds exactly like they sound in the comics – although some of that comes from the fact that a lot of the dialogue throughout the script is lifted wholesale from Gaiman’s original comics. Not that that’s a complaint, since a lot of the dialogue in the comic is already pretty stellar – why mess with what’s already good, right? What’s more impressive, though, is how well Elliot and Rossio capture the essence of the world of The Sandman. Yes, various plot details and characters are tweaked, but the world still fundamentally feels like the one Gaiman created. It still feels like this dark world of magic. The Dreaming feels like the abstract dreamscape it should be; Hell feels as nightmarish as you want it to. I can’t imagine it’s an easy task to try and capture something as utterly bonkers as The Sandman, but I think this script does a remarkable job at it.
Also, looking at it not as a fan of The Sandman but as someone who wants to see good films, it’s a solid script. The pacing is pretty good – a bit slow at the beginning, perhaps, as the film eases the audience into the world of The Sandman, but quickly picking up as the story kicks into gear. The streamlining of the comics’ narrative works reasonably well, giving a story that is reminiscent of what might be found in the comics, retaining much of the essence of the comics, while also being accessible and understandable to an audience who will have never read the comics. It doesn’t feel like a dumbing down of the material; rather, it feels more like a streamlining of it. Almost like a reader’s digest of why The Sandman is good. Is it an amazing script? No. But it would’ve made for a fun summer blockbuster and I think that’s what it was going for. As a fan of The Sandman, it’s a bit disappointing, but as its own thing, it’s solid.
On the whole, it’s probably a good thing this adaptation of The Sandman was never produced. While I think it would’ve made for a perfectly serviceable movie, one that captured the essence of the comics while streamlining certain aspects of the plot in order to make it more accessible for a mainstream audience, it certainly would’ve upset fans of Gaiman’s series. Would it have been the worst comics-to-screen adaptation ever filmed? Definitely not. But it’s hard to argue that The Sandman isn’t better suited for long-form visual storytelling, like TV, and not films. There’s a reason Hollywood never managed to figure out how to turn The Sandman into a film – it’s just not a property that works well for that medium. So, while this script is an interesting look at what could’ve been, and an enjoyable read on its own, it’s probably good that it never got filmed.
(3.5 out of 5 wands.)