Hollywood has been trying to adapt Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman for decades. That long wait was worth it, as Netflix’s faithful adaptation of the comics (under Gaiman’s watchful eye) is everything fans dreamed of, bringing the story we know and love to live-action with a few sensible tweaks and alterations.
An interview with Gaiman in Rolling Stone outlines the many attempts over the years to make a Sandman movie, with Hollywood producers completely misunderstanding the property along the way. The worst attempt stems from legendarily odd producer Jon Peters, who made his name with hits like Batman, The Color Purple, The Witches of Eastwick, and Rain Man.
Gaiman explains that Peters sent him a script (apparently written by Jonah Hex writer William Farmer) that sounds incomprehensibly awful.
“I’m like, “No, it had a giant mechanical spider.” But much more important than that, Lucifer, Morpheus, and the Corinthian were identical triplets. They were a family of identical brothers, and it was all a race to see who could get the ruby, the helm, and the bag of sand before midnight on 1999, before the new millennium started, because whoever got it would be the winner. That was the plot.”
Peters famously had a passion for including a giant mechanical spider in a blockbuster movie, with his unproduced Superman Lives with Nicolas Cage seeing the Man of Steel fighting against one. His arachnoid dream would eventually be realized in the flop Wild Wild West, perhaps proving that it was never a good idea.
“I remember them phoning me up. And I’m normally, I’m polite and nice if you’re on the phone. I try and find positive things to say to people who phone you up. And a guy in Jon Peters’ office phoned me up and he said, “So Neil, have you had a chance to read the script we sent you?
And I said, “Well, yes. Yes, I did. I haven’t read all of it, but I’ve read enough.” He says, “So, pretty good. Huh?” And I said, “Well, no. It really isn’t.” He said, “Oh, come on. There must have been stuff in there you loved.” I said, “There was nothing in there I loved. There was nothing in there I liked. It was the worst script that I’ve ever read by anybody. It’s not just the worst Sandman script. That was the worst script I’ve ever been sent.”
And then there was a pause. He says, “Oh, come on. That thing where we made the Corinthian the Sandman’s brother, that was good. Huh?” And I said, “No, that was really stupid.” And he said, “Oh, well, OK. You can’t win them all.” And I said, “No, you really can’t.” And I put down the phone and I thought, what do I do now?”
Gaiman then chose to do something that would be considered unprofessional at the time and might even be illegal if done today under current NDA rules and regulations.
“I sent the script to Ain’t It Cool News, which back then was read by people. And I thought, I wonder what Ain’t It Cool News will think of the script that they’re going to receive anonymously. And they wrote a fabulous article about how it was the worst script they’d ever been sent. And suddenly the prospect of that film happening went away. And instead Jon Peters turned his attention to Wild Wild West.”
Ain’t It Cool News… now there’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time. Their article was appropriately cutting, saying that the studio should “burn this f**king rag before any real damage is done to the property”. Interestingly, that writer also nails how to do The Sandman right way back in 1998, saying that the best way to adapt it would be to combine “Preludes and Nocturnes” and “The Doll’s House” into one story to set up the universe – precisely what Netflix ended up doing.
A quarter century on, we should be thankful that most new live-action adaptations of comics understand that they’re popular for a reason – and that fans don’t want a new (and awful) story featuring warped versions of existing characters.
Gaiman’s actions saw a major bullet dodged when it came to The Sandman. There’s a masochistic side to us that’s curious about how badly this would have turned out, though it’s absolutely for the best that this version of the story didn’t get any further than a script.