AUDIBLE.CA’S THE SANDMAN
Starring: James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Neil Gaiman, Riz Ahmed, Taron Egerton, Samantha Morton, Michael Sheen, Andy Serkis, and Bebe Neuwirth
Adapted by: Dirk Maggs
Directed by: Dirk Maggs
Based on the Vertigo/DC Comics Series by Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, and Mike Dringenberg
‘The Sandman’ available now on Audible.ca.
CW: The following review contains a description and analysis of the audio’s adaptation of The Doll’s House, which contains Violence and Transphobia.
“It was a dark and stormy nightmare…”
Since tempus immemorial, there have been “unadaptable” comics. For a while, it was Watchmen, but next in line was Neil Gaiman, Sam Keith, and Mike Dringenberg’s The Sandman. The cornerstone of Vertigo Comics, The Sandman is the sweeping tale of Morpheus of the Endless. Reader venture through his trials and tribulations after being released from capture by a two-bit magus, and his varied and enigmatic family.
But now, Audible.ca, guided by the pen and epic direction of Dirk Maggs, have done the impossible. They have adapted, pretty damn well, The Sandman. Sprawling across ten hours and encompassing the first twenty issues of the epic yarn, Audible.ca’s The Sandman is a sweeping, immensely reverent adaptation of the seminal work.
Adapted and directed by Maggs, who has supervised the iconic Hitchhiker’s Guide of the Galaxy radio series among countless other audio works (even adapting a few Gaiman audiobooks as well.) This adaptation of The Sandman translates the grim, often heartbreaking works into thrilling, scary, and affecting audio episodes ready-made for a Sunday binge or leisurely rediscovery of Dream and The Dreaming. While I also think this reverence is a double-edged sword for the work, I am pleased to say that Audible.ca’s The Sandman is (mostly) a success.
Right from the jump, this audio recaptures the heady goth heyday of Karen Berger’s Vertigo. Ushered into the story by James Hannigan’s tremendous score and Gaiman’s stiffly dulcet tones as The Narrator (more on him in a bit), Maggs displays early that he’s going for a 1-to-1 adaptation.
By now, you surely know the story of The Sandman. Captured by hedge wizard and popular occultist Roderick Burgess, who hoped to imprison Dream’s older sister Death, Morpheus of the Endless (a quietly powerful James McAvoy) is trapped for decades, spreading a “sleeping sickness” throughout the mortal realm.
From there, readers are treated to a largely intact and unchanged run of the next 19 issues, covering everything from Preludes & Nocturnes up until the end of Dream Country. (With a slight reordering of the issues, swapping “Calliope” up a few for in the place of “Facade” and slotting “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” as the “season finale” of this first installment.) This reverential treatment of the source material is both a boon and hindrance for the adaptation.
It is a boon in that a lot of the scarier moments and things that didn’t have much life on the page are vividly brought to life here by Maggs and the almost unfairly talented cast. Sequences like “24 Hours” (wherein a mad Doctor Destiny traps and toys with a diner full of people for a full day, bolstered by the power of Dream’s ruby) and Morpheus’ duel of stories against the demon Choronzon (played to the absolute hilt by Neverwhere and the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Paterson Joseph) in Hell absolutely SOAR thanks to the combination of the game cast, Maggs’ direction, and James Hannigan’s consistently jaw-dropping score.
Also, a real treat is the absolutely STOCKED cast of actors, each of whom is absolutely bringing their A-game. Anchored by the barely contained James McAvoy, who shifts very well between the cold, distant attitude of Dream and the more vengeful, thundering cadence of The Dream King, each new cast member that takes the “stage” here is better than the last. Standouts include Kat Dennings as Death, who finds a nice depth of performance here and makes excellent use of the sterling chemistry she sparks with McAvoy. Also Michael Sheen, clearly having a blast, who plays Lucifer Morningstar with a coolly cooing, almost breathy countenance that both charms and terrifies.
Taron Egerton’s truly fantastic John Constantine also deserves a special mention. Equal parts snark and heart, Edgerton eases effortlessly into the role of everyone’s favorite hard-luck magician and stands as a worthy foil to McAvoy’s stony Morpheus.
But while fans will be happy to know it largely leaves the work unchanged, I feel the script suffers in places with the straight transfer to the medium of audio. Nowhere is this more apparent than the series’ take on The Doll’s House, which leaves the steady mocking of Rose Walker’s drag queen landlady largely untouched, which doesn’t bode well at all for Wanda and her horribly deadnamed gravestone once A Game For You rolls around. Riz Ahmed’s chilling take on The Corinthian and the horror movie drive of the episode somewhat distracts from the literal way they play and stage it. Still, I feel like this could have been an opportunity to address some of the series’ more dated scenes and creative decisions, which Gaiman himself has expressed wishes to “smooth out.”
Speaking of the man himself, Gaiman also weirdly hinders this adaptation from being truly great. His cadence and near-constant presence as The Narrator, often either taking narration directly from the book or making certain scene blocking/dressing explicit, is considerably less dynamic when put next to the cast.
I realize the need for a certain amount of descriptive language, especially in this particular medium and translation. But at times, these monologues drug a bit, either obscuring the tremendous scoring and sound design or simply “telling” us what we were “seeing” in a particular scene. I’m not sure if it could have been improved with a more dynamic voice actor, one who may be more in tune with the medium (for example, Nicholas Briggs from Big Finish or any one of their roster of regular actors. A lot of whom actually DO show up throughout the runtime as side characters). Still, the script always seems to come more alive once one of the other main cast members takes over the narration for a time.
But even with these stumbles, Audible.ca’s The Sandman is still a towering achievement. Chock to bursting with bravura performances, exquisite scoring, and wonderfully spooky sound design, Audible.ca’s The Sandman, for my money, is as close as we are likely to get to a “definitive” adaptation.