A sad but inescapable truth is that casting any genre show or movie will provoke a backlash in 2021, especially when those cast are people of color, trans or non-binary — the well-documented issues of John Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran during their time on Star Wars come immediately to mind. However, author Neil Gaiman is not taking it lying down and has leaped to the defense of the actors cast in Netflix’s upcoming adaptation of his classic comic series The Sandman.
Fans have been clamoring for an adaptation of The Sandman ever since it was first published, and Netflix’s forthcoming series promises to be something special. The story focuses on Dream, one member of an immortal family who all personify different elements of human nature. The epic tale is much loved by a passionate fanbase. Knowing the potential they have on their hands, Netflix has enlisted a talented range of actors, including Tom Sturridge, Gwendoline Christie, Charles Dance, Jenna Coleman, David Thewlis, Stephen Fry, Patton Oswalt, and many others.
However, the casting of Black actress Kirby Howell-Baptiste in the key role of Dream’s sister Death and nonbinary actor Mason Alexander Park as Dream’s sibling Desire drew some nasty comments from the usual suspects. Some even dared to accuse Gaiman of not caring about his own material and playing politics.
London actress Howell-Baptiste has previously starred in Killing Eve, The Good Place, and Veronica Mars. Gaiman says on Netflix’s website that Howell-Baptiste was perfect for her difficult-to-cast role.
[Death was] significantly harder to cast than you might imagine (well, than I imagined, anyway). Hundreds of talented women from all around the planet auditioned, and they were brilliant, and none of them were right. Someone who could speak the truth to Dream, on the one hand, but also be the person you’d want to meet when your life was done on the other. And then we saw Kirby Howell-Baptiste’s (she/her) audition, and we knew we had our Death.
The casting drew criticism in part because Death is primarily portrayed as white-skinned in the original comics. But that’s not because the character of Death is Caucasian; she is the literal representation of death, and is not human. The character change form throughout the tale; in one story she portrayed as Asian. In one story, Dream appears as a Black man. When you’re portraying a timeless and universal concept of reality, race isn’t as important a factor as finding an actor who fits the role.
Gaiman also came to the defense of criticism of Mason Alexander Park, a nonbinary actor who has starred on Broadway in Hedwig and the Angry Inch and will appear as Gren in Netflix’s live-action version of Cowboy Bebop. Park’s casting as Desire also received negative feedback, despite the fact the character has always been nonbinary, making Park perfect for the role.
When it comes to trans and nonbinary representation, The Sandman was way ahead of its time. We’re talking about a story that began in the late ’80s, long before our current moment when trans and nonbinary rights have become a bigger part of the public discourse, and yet Gaiman’s comic included trans and nonbinary characters. In light of that, the complains about casting seem pretty uninformed.
Gaiman was scathing in his response to the trolls, noting that the “shouty people” engaging in the campaign of abuse appear to have not actually read the comic. The comics describe Desire as “him-, her-, or itself” and add that “Desire has never been satisfied with just one sex or just one of anything.”
“I give zero fucks about people who don’t understand/haven’t read Sandman whining about a non-binary Desire or that Death isn’t white enough,” Gaiman wrote. “Watch the show; make up your minds.”
The troubled history of The Sandman
The Sandman is one of the true landmark titles in the comic world. First published by DC in 1989, the series focuses on Dream, aka the Sandman. Captured and kept in captivity for decades through an occult ritual, Dream eventually escapes into the modern world and sets about exacting his revenge and rebuilding his kingdom. The series and its spin-offs have won over 26 Eisner awards, two Bram Stoker Awards, and a Hugo.
Attempts to produce a film based on the series have a long history, with Warner Bros. attempting to bring the popular comic to cinemas as far back as 1996. Still, the project was beset with creative differences and the ire of fans displeased at its reported direction. Gaiman said in 2010 that the last script he’d seen was “not only the worst Sandman script I’ve ever seen, but quite easily the worst script I’ve ever read.”
In 2013, DC was still eager to produce a film version, believing it could spawn a new cinema franchise, and New Line Cinema was set to distribute with Dark Knight Trilogy writer David S. Goyer producing. Jack Thorne, who wrote the stage play Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, was signed on to write the script, but new writers like Eric Heisserer were subsequently brought on board despite DC reportedly being pleased with Thorne’s treatment. Heisserer would later say he believed the material would be better suited to an HBO TV adaptation.
Director James Marigold (Wolverine, Logan) actually did pitch a TV show version of The Sandman to HBO. Warner Bros. wanted Supernatural creator Eric Kripke to head up a Sandman series, but none of this came to pass.
A Sandman adaptation undoubtedly gained momentum after DC and Fox launched the show Lucifer in 2016; technically, Lucifer is a spin-off of The Sandman, although the tones are very different. At this point, the show has run for five seasons, with the latest series having dropped on Netflix just last week. Its success surely helped convince Netflix to go ahead with adapting the original story.
Commissioned for an initial 11 episodes, The Sandman may help Netflix in the streaming wars, where everybody wants their own top-level intellectual properties to stand against stuff like The Lord of the Rings on Amazon or the Star Wars and Marvel series on Disney+. The Sandman show will be executive produced by Allan Heinberg, Neil Gaiman and David S. Goyer.
For his part, Gaiman says he will be more hands-on than with American Gods and plans to adapt his source material as faithfully as possible while updating it to a modern setting. The first season will cover the comics Preludes & Nocturnes and The Doll’s House, with filming wrapping up later this month. The show is expected to air later this year.