The Sandman has finally arrived on Netflix, but Neil Gaiman’s iconic comic book was once planned for the big screen – so what happened to The Sandman movie?
The Sandman is pretty daunting from the outset. This is a world where the forces that govern our existence – emotionally, physically, and cosmically – are ideas embodied by beings more powerful than the gods mankind knows to worship.
Launching back in 1986, Gaiman’s original series ran for 75 issues. It separated itself from the crop with a standalone aesthetic and existential, fantastical storytelling that didn’t bow to the superhero rush. It was one of the first comics to crack The New York Times bestseller list, alongside the likes of Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns.
With that in mind, you wouldn’t be the first to wonder: why hasn’t there been a movie adaptation of The Sandman? Well, it’s not for lack of trying.
Plans for The Sandman movie started in the 1990s
Amid the comic book’s critical and commercial success, Warner Bros. – the parent company of DC Comics, which published The Sandman – began developing plans for a movie.
Roger Avary was tapped to direct after collaborating with Quentin Tarantino on Pulp Fiction, and ended up working with Pirates of the Caribbean scribes Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio on the script. In its initial state, the film would have mixed the Preludes and Noctures storyline with The Doll’s House, both of which were adapted for the Netflix series.
Avary’s ambitions were clear: he looked at the surrealist work of animator Jan Švankmajer for inspiration, an artist interlinked with Gaiman, particularly with comparisons between Švankmajer’s Alice and Gaiman’s Coraline. Alas, Jon Peters fired him after creative disagreements. Bear in mind, this is the same producer responsible for 1989’s Batman (yay) and the dead-and-buried Superman Lives (nay).
Early script for The Sandman movie was the “worst script” Neil Gaiman “ever read”
Over the next years, heading into the turn of the millennium, The Sandman movie became stranded in development hell. William Farmer, who went on to contribute to the story of 2010’s Jonah Hex, wrote a script that was branded as “devoid of imagination” by Ain’t It Cool News.
Efforts persisted, to the scorn of almost everyone – including Gaiman, who described Warner Bros’ last screenplay as “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read,” as per Science Fiction World.
During an appearance at Comic-Con in 2007, Gaiman spoke about his frustrations with how his characters were treated, saying (as per Mania): “I’d rather see no Sandman movie made than a bad Sandman movie. But I feel like the time for a Sandman movie is coming soon. We need someone who has the same obsession with the source material as Peter Jackson had with Lord of the Rings or Sam Raimi had with Spider-Man.”
He also elected Terry Gilliam as his director of choice, but the 12 Monkeys filmmaker never pursued the project.
The Sandman movie found its Morpheus in The Dark Knight Rises
The 2010s saw a fair bit of momentum for the film, with then-DC President Diane Nelson likening the scale of a Sandman movie to Harry Potter, as per The Hollywood Reporter.
In 2013, it took its biggest step in more than a decade: David S. Goyer, a writer on The Dark Knight trilogy and Man of Steel, announced a feature film adaptation of The Sandman in collaboration with Gaiman, with TDKR’s Joesph Gordon-Levitt tapped to star as the titular Lord of Dreams.
Jack Thorne, who went on to write the likes of The Long Way Down, Wonder, and Enola Holmes, was also hired to write the screenplay. However, it wouldn’t be distributed via Warner Bros., instead released through Vertigo.
So, what happened to The Sandman movie?
Everything seemed to be going somewhat swimmingly: Goyer gave promising updates about the script; New Line Cinema reportedly agreed to distribute the movie; and in 2016, the movie was undergoing a few rewrites by Eric Heisserer.
And then it fell apart. Gordon-Levitt dropped out over creative differences. In a lengthy Facebook post, the actor spoke about their initial hopes of “adapting one of the most beloved and boundary-pushing titles in the world of comics. I was pleased with the progress we were making even though we still had quite a ways to go.”
The issues stemmed from the changeover between Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema. “I came to realize that the folks at New Line and I just don’t see eye to eye on what makes Sandman special, and what a film adaptation could/should be,” he wrote.
“So unfortunately, I decided to remove myself from the project. I wish nothing but the best for the team moving forward.”
As a result of the film’s extended, stop-start development, DC Entertainment ramped up efforts to adapt it into a television series, leading to Netflix and Warner Bros. signing a deal in 2019. If fans are lucky, the show will continue into Season 2.
The Sandman is available to stream on Netflix now.