One of the main posters for the Netflix adaptation of the Neil Gaiman graphic novel The Sandman seems to encapsulate and illustrate an approach by Hollywood that many, myself included, find problematic. This post continues a series of posts pondering the issue of actor swapping in film and TV roles.
I spent two posts (one and two) on The Sandman adaptation because of its examples of actor swapping in key roles. These stand out because they apply to especially well-defined characters. Similar, say, to the characters on Futurama.
I hadn’t intended a third post, but the poster caught my eye. It’s the one in the lede of the two posts (and this one). Its layout out intrigues me.
And in any case, The Sandman adaptation is a good segue back into the general discussion of actor swapping. Or of the problems with live-action adaptations of long-running characters. This turns out to be an even bigger trap than just collapsing the role to a single actor. It turns long-running characters, ones who seemingly never age, into actors with life spans. It puts an end-date on previously immortal characters. Ironman and Thor are good recent examples.
For now, I’ll stick with the issue of live-action versions of characters from print or animation. Characters that are generally both singularly and visually well-defined.
I mention the characters on Futurama because they’re not as well-known as the characters on, say, The Simpsons. By analogy, Gaiman’s The Sandman is not as well-known as Superman or Micky Mouse. But in all cases, there is canonical artwork establishing the form and appearance of the characters.
In long-running comics, especially over a span of decades, characters are drawn slightly differently by different artists. In some cases, the differences are quite prominent — a matter of a certain artist’s style. Generally, though, there is a canonical model for drawn or animated characters. They have to look enough like themselves for the reader or viewer to immediately identify them!
I’ll return to all this in future posts. For now, let’s look at that poster.
The whole image is in the lede up top. [Here’s a link to a full-sized version. 1382 × 2048 pixels, 3.3 MB]
The first thing that jumps out is the three characters along the top, Death (Kirby Howell-Baptiste), Lucifer (Gwendoline Christie), and Lucienne (Vivienne Acheampong). Dream’s older sister, the ruler of Hell, and Dream’s librarian, respectively.
If someone knew the graphic novel but had no knowledge of the adaptation and was shown this poster, I’m quite certain they would not identify Death. Or Lucien. They might guess Lucifer from the hooked wings but probably would be confused. (They might guess it was one of the two Angels that later replace Lucifer.)
Dream’s older sister Death, a comic fan favorite, is a quirky white goth chick, pale skin against the black clothing she wears. Here they went with a more somber Kirby Howell-Baptiste. (Why not present Death as appearing according to the culture and expectations of each person she takes? To her siblings she could appear as a blend. That would be a reasonable change.)
Lucifer isn’t a major character in the comic. The adaptation teases a big announcement from Lucifer after the meeting with Azazel. I don’t know if the adaptation planned differently, but in the comic the big announcement is that Lucifer has had enough and is quitting Hell. Yes, for real. Yes, right now. Bye!
Lucien the librarian (tall skinny bookish white male) is a secondary character (doesn’t have his own Wiki page). He — or now she — is certainly not on par with older sister Death or the ruler of Hell. Yet the adaptation elevates the role of Lucien to the more important Lucienne, who along with the newly invented Gault, are the wise Black women who school the ignorant Dream.
These are the three largest (roughly same size as Dream as measured from chin to eyebrows) and they hold prominent position along the top.
Lucifer in the center is the most inexplicable to me. Unless they planned a much larger role for Gwendoline Christie. The comic version of Lucifer just isn’t a major character and barely belongs on the poster at all. (Is it possible they planned that she’s behind Desire’s machinations towards Dream? I hope not. “The Devil made me do it?” How droll.) I suspect they were trading on Christie’s star power.
The middle section of the poster, besides Dream himself in the center, has on the left, Gilbert/Fiddler’s Green (Stephen Fry) with Dream’s younger sister Despair (Donna Preston) below, and on the right, Rose Walker (Kyo Ra) with Dream’s younger sibling Desire (Mason Alexander Park) below.
Gilbert and Rose Walker are linked in the story, so it makes sense they’d share a horizontal level. One could even get poetic and note they’re linked through Dream.
But it doesn’t hold up. Despair and Desire are younger sisters of the older more powerful Endless (oldest to youngest: Destiny, Death, Dream) and certainly aren’t linked through Dream. Besides Death, they’re the only other siblings of Dream that we meet in the first season of the adaptation. That might be why they’re on the poster, despite having very few minutes of screen time.
The only character change here is Rose Walker (and her family), and it’s a good example of where a race swap shouldn’t be an issue. There’s no reason the Walker family can’t be Black. (The added character of Gault seems gilding the lily, but whatever.)
Here again I suspect they were trading on Stephen Fry’s star power. His character in the TV version is notably diminished. In the comic, he’s instrumental during the “cereal” convention events. He recovers Rose’s brother Jed from the Corinthian, he drives Rose and Jed home, and he sits by Jed’s hospital bed. Only when Matthew tells him Rose is a Dream Vortex® does he return to the Dream (because he knows that means Dream must kill Rose).
In the TV series he runs off in fear, back to Dream, as soon as he sees the Corinthian. It’s possible the character continues in season two with a larger role than the one in the comic (where, once he returns, we don’t see him much). But the poster may have been designed with more than just the first season in mind (which may also explain Lucifer’s prominence). Or both might just be trading on star power.
Still, my guess is that Fiddler’s Green does not play an expanded role later and Stephen Fry appears courtesy of his star power. I’d also guess Gwendoline Christie is in such a prominent position both because star power and because of an expanded role. The Corinthian was the Big Bad in season one; Lucifer may have been intended as the Big Bad in season two (perhaps along with Desire).
Johanna Constantine got an expanded role in the adaptation. She took on the role of John Constantine as well as her existing one. Even so, she didn’t have much of a role in the adaptation. (The comic Johanna’s big adventure in France wasn’t shown, at least not in season one.) I suspect they’re once again trading on star power; Coleman is a former Doctor Who companion.
The Corinthian, who the TV series places front and center, rather stole the show. In no small part because they didn’t make major changes to the character. They maintained the gestalt of the character.
Dream is also reasonably faithful to the comic, although they’ve diminished him as a person in favor of elevating Lucienne, Lucifer, Gault, and Death. With Desire, and sidekick Despair, in the background.
It’s an interesting lineup.
Batting female, Lucienne, Lucifer, Gault, Death, Desire, and Despair. The first five, especially the first two, are power hitters and we just haven’t seen much of the last (in the comic, she’s just as powerful as her siblings). Of the six, three are POC, two are gender swaps, and one is newly minted for the TV series. The first three are notably elevated from their comic versions (Gault infinitely so since she doesn’t have a comic version).
Speaking of which, Gault didn’t make the poster, so teamwise she’s out with a tummy ache. Filling in is Johanna Constantine (who is also John Constantine).
On a positive note, I have to mention that casting Mason Alexander Park as Desire is pretty spot on. Park’s Wiki page carefully uses they/their pronoun form, so the actor is a legit T (even in OG LGBT let alone any of the XYZ that followed).
Batting male, Dream, the Corinthian, and Gilbert. All decidedly white. (On the bench, Cain, Abel, and Matthew. Two British guys of Middle Eastern descent and a crow.) As mentioned above, Gilbert runs off in fear rather than helping Rose, and the Corinthian is an evil escaped-dream serial killer who inspires followers. And Dream, the protagonist, frequently seems ineffectual and lost. Thankfully there are Wise Black Women to school him.
That said, the story is Dream’s journey to being a better “person” — much of which owes to his older sister, Death, and his friendship with Hob Gadling and other characters. But he learns by confronting his mistakes honestly, not by being schooled by what amounts to a socially driven authorial point of view.
While I generally agree with The Message, that doesn’t mean I want to be hit over the head with it in my entertainment. I’m looking for escape, not a lecture. And with an adaptation of a beloved source, if it has to be done at all, it should be done better — it should add something. I am not onboard with the deconstruction.
In the end, cases like this have to do with the fidelity of live-action adaptations of existing characters — often ones with a well-established visualization (such as from comics and animated series).
Shows such as Futurama offer a good test case. How much latitude would we give a live-action adaptation to change the characters? How much flexibility should there be in realistic adaptation of a well-defined character?
The adaptations of The Sandman and Cowboy Bebop (both by Netflix) stand out for their fidelity to the appearance and form of their source — in most areas. This calls attention to the changes and raises questions about why they were made. What value did they add? Why copy the originals so faithfully, then?
Stay posted, my friends! Go forth and spread beauty and light.