REVIEW: Audible’s “The Sandman”

Making an audio adaptation of The Sandman seems like a great idea. There’s a lot of ways to convey fantasy settings using just sound and it feels like the perfect medium for The Sandman. I mean, it’s a series about the power of stories and what better way to experience the story than to close your eyes and let the sounds wash over you, right? And, in all honesty, that’s basically what Audible’s adaptation of The Sandman is – though, I’d argue it skews a bit closer to an audiobook than a true audio drama, but for most people, that’ll be just fine. For me, I enjoyed the adaptation but I wish it embraced the power of audio dramas a bit more than it does and relied less on narration to explain the “missing” visuals. (4 out of 5 wands.)

(NOTE: Mild spoilers may follow.)

The Sandman (written by Neil Gaiman, adapted by Dirk Maggs)
When The Sandman, also known as Lord Morpheus—the immortal king of dreams, stories and the imagination—is pulled from his realm and imprisoned on Earth by a nefarious cult, he languishes for decades before finally escaping. Once free, he must retrieve the three “tools” that will restore his power and help him to rebuild his dominion, which has deteriorated in his absence. As the multi-threaded story unspools, The Sandman descends into Hell to confront Lucifer (Michael Sheen), chases rogue nightmares who have escaped his realm, and crosses paths with an array of characters from DC comic books, ancient myths, and real-world history, including: Inmates of Gotham City’s Arkham Asylum, Doctor Destiny, the muse Calliope, the three Fates, William Shakespeare (Arthur Darvill), and many more.

I love audio dramas and I loved most of Audible’s adaptation of The Sandman. It’s a very faithful adaptation of the first twenty issues of the comic, covering the first three arcs of the series. If you’ve read the comics, you already know the plots of them, so I don’t feel the need to recap/critique them here. Especially since this adaptation is an almost word-for-word translation, with the bulk of the dialogue and narration coming directly from the comics and only a few tweaks made here and there (like using they/them/their pronouns for Desire instead of the comic’s “it”). Everything that happens in the comics happens in this adaptation, pretty much exactly how you remember it. And it’s impressive how well most of the plot translates to an audio-only medium. The plot has always been complex, and it remains so here – possibly to the detriment of listeners unfamiliar with the comics. But as a fan of the comics, it’s wonderful to have such a well-produced, faithful adaptation of a series I love – especially in light of how unfaithful comic adaptations frequently are.

This faithfulness is a double-edged sword, though. It’s always a joy to have an adaptation that skews so closely to the source material, but sometimes you just want an adaptation to actually… adapt the story in a way that best serves the new medium. And that’s where The Sandman struggles a bit. Comics are tricky to adapt because so much of the experience is tied with the visuals of the comic, so there is always a temptation to try to capture as much of the visuals as possible. But that’s not really what audio dramas are good at. They work best when they are given the room to kind of be ambiguous about the visuals of a scene, instead, allowing listeners to create their own visual landscape based on what’s being heard. The Sandman rarely allows that to happen. The Sandman relies a lot on narration (performed by Gaiman, himself) that explains much of the visual information. The narration is partially sourced from the narration captions found in the comic and from Gaiman’s original scripts, where he’d describe the visuals to the various artists so they could subsequently illustrate them.

Now, to be fair, there’s nothing inherently wrong with having narration in an audio drama, it’s just that almost every time it happened in The Sandman, it felt like it wasn’t wholly necessary. There are times where it works very well, but the vast majority of the time narration was used, I felt as though I’d have rather had that information left up to my imagination. It’s most often used to describe something visually – how a character or location looks. And, honestly, in an audio drama, that stuff just doesn’t matter. I don’t care what Morpheus looks like; I care about what he’s doing. I understand why one might want to include such descriptions – the artwork of The Sandman is as iconic as, if not more iconic than, Gaiman’s script work is. And in adapting the comic, one might want to retain as much of it as humanly possible. But, for me, the narration proved distracting and unneeded more often than it proved necessary. It frequently felt more like an audiobook than an audio drama, which is a pretty pedantic distinction, in all honesty, but one worth mentioning. I found myself wishing The Sandman was allowed to be more of an audio drama, letting the sound effects and dialogue do all of the describing instead of relying on narration to fill in the visual gaps. But your mileage may vary.

That being said, Audible’s The Sandman is still a very enjoyable experience. It’s an utter joy hearing these characters finally come to life, and almost all the cast are perfectly cast (except for Kat Dennings as Death, whose performance never quite clicked for me). James McAvoy is exactly as good as you want him to be, bringing a great balance of mystery and power to his Morpheus. He shows great range throughout the twenty episodes, going from weak to powerful to somewhere in between. You completely buy the idea that he is the lord of the Dreaming. It’s that good of a performance. Equally good are Michael Sheen as Lucifer (doing his best David Bowie impersonation), Taron Edgerton as John Constantine, Shey Greyson as Rose Walker, Riz Ahmed as The Corinthian (being entirely unsettling), Bebe Neuwirth as the Siamese Cat, and Samantha Morton as Urania Blackwell, and Arthur Darvill as Shakespeare. But all of the cast do excellent jobs, especially those who don’t have a lot of material with which to stand out.

Equally, if not more impressive, is The Sandman’s sound design and score. Dirk Maggs’ extensive experience creating audio dramas is on full display in his directing and sound design for The Sandman. He creates an entire world with sound effects and excellent mixing and it’s beyond impressive. Everything from the “sound of [Death’s] wings” to the atmosphere of realms like the Dreaming and Hell to a bunch of fairies watching A Midsummer Night’s Dream sound fully realized and instantly immersive. There is so much detail caked into the soundscape of The Sandman that you will pick up on new things each time you listen to an episode. Then there’s the truly cinematic score from James Hannigan that rivals a Hollywood film. Hannigan understands the weight and atmosphere of The Sandman universe and his score highlights the operatic tendencies in Gaiman’s narrative. These two elements combine to create one of the best-sounding audio dramas in years.

At the end of the day, I really enjoyed Audible’s adaptation of The Sandman. It skews a bit closer to an audiobook than an audio drama for my tastes, but it’s a great listen. The vast majority of the performances are excellent, with everyone breathing life into their characters and making them feel as dynamic as they look in the comics. Equally great is Dirk Maggs’ atmospheric sound design and James Hannigan’s gorgeous score, both of which greatly elevate the entire production into something truly special. I’d love to see future installments in the series rely a bit more on Maggs’ and Hannigan’s talents and less on narration from Gaiman, allowing them the opportunity to tell as much of the story as possible through straight dialogue and sound design, but still. The Sandman is a great listen, though I’m not entirely sure how accessible it will be to those completely unfamiliar with the comics. I’d say it’s well worth a shot, though, especially if you enjoy audio dramas.

(4 out of 5 wands.)

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