Joseph Gordon-Levitt sent a ripple of anticipation through the comic book community when he Tweeted he would be taking on the holy grail of graphic novel conversions, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Should We be excited or scared?
I think it’s fair to say that aficionados of Gaiman’s work are imagining a movie version with a sense of delicious anticipation tempered by an undercurrent of loss and despair. The pleasurable expectation is fuelled by the special effects industry being able to create, realistically, anything they want and so the screen imaginings of Morpheus’ castle and homelands should look awesome, and also because other directors have made pretty decent movies from fairly complex and revered comics. Zack Snyder’s screen recreation of Watchmen followed the book fairly truthfully, even if Alan Moore didn’t like it.
The feelings of loss and despair have other roots. Firstly there is the fear that the film won’t look like the comic. In its 7 year run The Sandman featured some great artists; Dave McKean’s beautiful cover work enclosed inspiring creations from Mike Dringenberg, Kelly Jones, Jill Thompson and more. Gaiman worked closely with his artists, adjusting his stories to fit with each artist’s style which allowed story arcs to be visually different but remain conceptually stable. Directors come to the project with their own ideas of how a film should look.
The other fear can be summed up by saying Constantine. And Keanu Reeves. As comics go, Hellblazer seemed much easier to translate to the film medium than The Sandman does; it is filled with strong, easy to recognise characters and has some action filled story arcs that work to a satisfying conclusion. Well, partly satisfying, part of the draw of Hellblazer is that actions always have consequences, normally terrifying, drawn out, blood soaked and fatal consequences. But I digress. Keanu Reeves is a fine actor I’m sure, he both found his station in film and peaked in his career with Bill & Ted. He didn’t ruin The Matrix as it didn’t require anything in the way of real acting. His portrayal of the hard-bitten, chain-smoking Liverpudlian ex-punk John Constantine as though he were one of the Agents from The Matrix sent strong men reeling, weeping, from cinemas across the land.
Keanu Reeves alone shouldn’t shoulder the blame for the travesty that was Constantine. Its director, Francis Lawrence, had cut his teeth on Britney Spears videos so perhaps wasn’t really cut out for the task of making Hellblazer something other than an also ran horror movie. Lawrence of course would go on to prove that when it came to missing the point of books he could miss that point by a country mile. I Am Legend showed that while he might like the general concept of a book, he didn’t care for anything actually written inside it.
Another fear held by fans of the comic is known as the Gimli effect. This malicious trait worms its way into the minds of directors and then manifests as a desire to create comedy in the place of bravery, honour or stoicism. Peter Jackson generally did a fine job in translating Lord of the Rings to the big screen, but making the steadfast and loyal Dwarven fighter into the butt of a series of ‘short person’ jokes detracted from the overall feel of the film. There was humour, black at times, in the interplay between Gimli and Legolas and their growing friendship, the humour that Jackson and his scriptwriters introduced to encourage us to mock people who differed from the physical norm was unforgiveable. I suppose we’re just lucky that Tolkien didn’t write a black character into his novel.
Fears aside then, should Sandman fans be filled with delicious anticipation? I’m going to voice a hesitant yes here. Reading what Gordon-Levitt has said so far about the project does make me feel as if he really understands something about the soul and essence of The Sandman. Gordon-Levitt in interview with IGN voiced his opinion that many big budget, high spectacle movies, and he may have been having a polite dig at the rather generic run of Marvel adaptations here, go down a predictable story route ending in an explosion filled grand finale. Then he stated that with The Sandman there was the opportunity to create a grandiose visual phenomenon that didn’t have to follow the formulaic route well trodden by so many comic adaptations.
Gordon-Levitt’s fairly small CV as a producer doesn’t really indicate whether or not he is the perfect man for the job, although he did have an executive producer’s role in Looper. He also had a role in the most recent Batman movie, a comic adaptation which proved that you can take a comic, adapt it to film, and still make it dark and somewhat edgy. Gaiman has stated that the thinks one of the historical stumbling blocks for a Sandman movie has been the PG-13 rating. Some of the Sandman story arcs would fall within this rating; some however, including the bloody and emotionally twisted 24 Hour Diner sequence would push the boundaries for an inclusive film rating.
Does Gordon-Levitt have his eyes on both producing the film and playing the main role, that of Morpheus himself? His acting skills are fine, but to me he is possessed of an all too open and friendly face to be the mysterious and frightening master of the sleeping world. Neil Gaimain himself has said that his dream for the role would be to have either of Tom Hiddlestone or Benedict Cumberbatch playing the Dream Lord. Mind you, Anne Rice always wanted Rutger Hauer to play the vampire Lestat, and look how that turned out.