It’s arguably the crown jewel in DC’s Vertigo line, and was one of, if not the, book defined the line and modern mainstream non-superhero comics. Created in 1989 by writer Neil Gaiman and artists Mike Dringenberg and Sam Kieth, it began life as a rebooted version of 70s DC hero of the same name but evolved into its own concept by the time the first issue was released. It resulted in over a dozen spin-offs over the years, but when it comes to a big-screen movie adaptation it’s been stood up at the altar more than once. Numerous people from Pulp Fiction producer Roger Avery to Batman producer Jon Peters have tried to work up a movie production, with DC’s latest attempt bringing in Supernatural creator Eric Kripke for a TV version.
But in this installment of Comic Book Casting, I’ll make the case that The Sandman and his world of dreams is best shown in movies than in the standard television format. Movie-makers, take note.
Over the course of Gaiman’s 75-issue run on The Sandman, he took readers to a multitude of worlds featuring a menagerie of characters. It’s stories sometimes defied the tradition of three-act structure, and was more a epic character piece than clear series of story lines. Be that as it may, for The Sandman to work in a live-action format it needs the sprawling canvas (and budget) that only big-screen movies provide, and the best place to start is the beginning with the first story-arc, “More Than Rubies,” collected in the subtitled volume Preludes & Nocturnes.
Gaiman’ s original seven issues took a meandering approach to setting up the constraints of the raven-heard dream god’s life, and for a movie they need to be reigned in somewhat to make it more conducive to movies. People might say it’s sacrilegious to veer from the original, but Peter Jackson did just that with Lord of the Rings. The key part is Dream finally escaping from his imprisonment by the sorcerers in the Burgess family and set upon rebuilding his life and his world that’s gone into dis-repair in his absence. This story is about Dream rebuilding his life by tracking down sacred artifacts that give him his power, and to gain revenge on the men that imprisoned him for nearly a century.
Delving in to the supernatural life of the dream god, it takes an experienced director with the talent to balance big screen special effects budget without dulling the strength of the source material. For this, I’d enlist none other than multi-time Harry Potter director David Yates. I admit that he’s one of the most in-demand directors in this modern day and time, but Yates is one of the few people that are equipped for the various and unique challenges that translating The Sandman to a live-action movie picture life. If the Harry Potter movies were considered a boy’s adventure movie, then this would be Yates’ chance to take what he learned along the way and push it to the next level.
The Sandman – Ben Barnes: Everyone from Johnny Depp to Sherlock‘s Benedict Cumberbatch has been lobbied by fans for this role, but this needs a younger and less experienced voice to show Dream waking up and lashing out at his captors. Barnes is best known for his roles in The Chronicles of Narnia, but he’s quietly built up a strong body of work with a Dorian Gray remake and last year’s Killing Bono. I admit he’s not the A-list actor some would hope for, but Yates has experience making a movie without “name” actors and delivering an irresistible film and Barnes could help him — and become a star himself in the process. The actor gets bonus points for already working on a previous Gaiman film — he played a role in Stardust back in 2007.
Roderick Burgess – Bill Nighy: He’s one of the primary villains to this inaugural story, and also it’s downplayed somewhat in the comics I’d shore up the prominence of this character by having Burgess not only being the prison warden for Dream but also owner of one of his lost artifacts, the ruby. And Bill Nighy could really light up the movie and show an old man can be threatening even when standing opposite a god.
Alex Burgess – Jeremy Northam: For the movie, I’d portray Roderick’s son Alex as the reluctant successor to the Burgess mantle as magicians but still guilty of keeping Dream locked away for years. This Gosford Park alum would be a great addition to the film, and add nuance to the straight-up evil elder Burgess in the imprisonment of Dream.
Cain – Toby Stephens: Along with his brother Abel, Cain is one of the few souls who stuck with Dream’s home realm in his absence. Conniving and plotting as ever, Cain would be a great facet to Dream’s extended family and actor Toby Stephens could really live up to Gaiman’s writing of the character.
Abel – Nick Frost: Frost is best known for his straight-up comedy performances, so having him provide some comic relief in the dour world of The Sandman would be a great thing.
Lucifer – Jude Law: Jude Law is mostly portrayed as the hero in films, but I think he’s better suited to be an adversary — so why not “the adversary” as some biblical stories call him? I’d love to see Law-as-Lucifer face off against Dream in a battle of wits. You could even plant hints to the later Seasons of Mist storyarc where Lucifer quits as head of hell.
Death – Olivia Thirlby: Although she’s never carried an ongoing series of her own, Dream’s little sister Death is arguably just as popular as the man himself. In terms of this movie, she was the original target for capture by Burgess and although she doesn’t play a role in the first story-arc, she premieres in the epilogue issue #8 to allow Dream to vent about his imprisonment and assess his life now that he’s back. If DC wanted to steal a page from Marvel’s book and have a enthralling post-credits scene, then doing The Sandman #8 in that spot premiering Death would be like catnip for fans.