We had a surprise episode of The sand man! The adaptation of “A Dream of A Thousand Cats” and “Calliope” premiered on Netflix on Friday and, like the rest of the series, was a strong comic book adaptation that sometimes even enhanced its source material.
As my discussion on the episode concerns the choices made in the adaptation, it is necessarily spoiler! So if you haven’t watched the episode yet and plan to, please check back to this one at a later date.
“Dream of A Thousand Cats” is, predictably, brilliant. The animation is beautiful, with a wide variety of cats included, and a slightly Spooky Season tone with all the cats gathering in a graveyard under the light of a full moon.
The voice cast includes some actors from the audio adaptation of The sand manwith good omens‘ stars David Tennant and Michael Sheen joined by their real-life partners Georgia Tennant and Anna Lundberg, lead kitten played by Rosie Day, her older tomcat pal played by David Gyasi, prophetess cat played by Sandra Oh, and a skeletal crow played by Neil Gaiman. Tom Sturridge has as much gravity as Cat!Morpheus as ModernGothBoi!Morpheus.
“Calliope” is… difficult. It’s a difficult, dark and upsetting story to begin with. I think the adaptation works better than I expected. Where in the comics Richard Madoc is just shit from the start, here he has enough personality and story arc to make his choices even more gross. He uses his job to lull women into a false sense of security, but he accepts Erasmus Fry’s instructions without a second thought and is all for objecting to Calliope and raping her for inspiration.
Adaptation makes things worse!
Again, part of it is down to casting. Arthur Darvill is excellent, and his past work in Doctor Who, Broadchurchand Legends of tomorrow make him look likeable. When he takes Calliope from Fry, he recoils at the man’s toughness and seems horrified by his situation. You could be forgiven for thinking he could release her immediately. Derek Jacobi, who plays Erasmus Fry, is Derek fucking Jacobi. And Melissanthi Mahut is excellent in a difficult role as Calliope – furious and desperate, but never a victim. And yeah, I know, every post about it turns into an hour of Tom Sturridge appreciation, but still. Every conversation with Calliope is loaded with their story, and you can feel him picking out every word. He loves her, he wants her to be in his life, he mourns their son, he regrets everything. And of course, the brief and charged confrontation with Madoc is chilling.
And, like I said, you could be forgiven for thinking that the story is going to take a better path. Even after Madoc takes her home, unlike the bare room and the old comic book crib, Madoc sets her up in a cute room with a fireplace, warm lights, real furniture. He asks for her help, he brings her chocolates, perfume and flowers to “court” her. She compliments him on trying to reason with him. Could he be seeing that she is a real being, not an object to be used?
But no, he ignores everything she says, and any hope that he’s going to be an improvement for Fry is slowly dying. She repeatedly asks him to release her and clarifies that she won’t even discuss giving him the inspiration voluntarily until he does. And the show kinda drags that out, feeling like he might come to his senses and let her go. But no, he’s shown with a blank screen and blinking cursor, followed by the threat of having to pay back his novel advance – a choice between being a decent person or not – and a scene later he’s walking up the stairs to his room .
They don’t show what’s going on (another improvement on the comic), but it’s obvious, and it makes Madoc so worse than Fry, and, honestly, worse than the gruesome character on the page. The Madoc of the comics was simply a monster – this one is a man who chooses to do evil.
The episode focuses on the idea of choice much more than the comic. Where Fry seems like a despicable person, Madoc could have chosen a different path for himself, and the show gives him an entire stage to think about his choices. Calliope never blames herself for her imprisonment, like she does in the comics, and once Morpheus comes to her, he asks her how she wants him to intervene, never assuming to know her mind. (He certainly never calls her “child” like he does in the comics.) She chooses to free Madoc from Morpheus’ curse and use her freedom to rewrite the rules that were used to enslave her.
Adaptation plays the “nice” element even more. Other than Fry, the only people we see him talking to are women, usually women of color. Four years later, on his second book written during his enslavement of Calliope, we see him negotiate a film deal where he insists that the cast and crew be at least 50% women and people of color. That he makes this deal in front of the real, sentient being he’s imprisoned in his house doesn’t seem to faze him.
This paints a fascinating picture: what is the psychology of a person who presents such a progressive and humanistic front, only to keep the parasitic parts of his psyche locked away? As a writer, I myself am absolutely a parasite. I steal sentences and I hear conversations, fashion choices, unconscious gestures, capricious lips. I strip my own past and that of my friends for material. But I draw a few lines. When I hurt people, I hurt them, I think, only as a clumsy, often thoughtless and overly emotional human being, not as a writer. I do my best not to suck anyone dry, and when I do the strip mining I talked about, I work damn hard to make the resulting coal unrecognizable and fictional. So it’s interesting to me to see this character, the all-too-familiar “male feminist artist,” who gets carried away with his own self-loathing by convincing himself that he’s doing everything for his art. Not, of course, that men can’t be feminists, just that we can all name male writers, actors, and musicians who hid rotten parts of their own personalities behind ostensibly progressive storytelling.
Because, okay. I’m going to be a little personal for a while, and I’ll probably sound like a freak. As a person, I’ll screw up sometimes – more than sometimes – I’ll feel remorse, apologize, make amends. (What is life but a road paved with repairs?) This is how humans learn, it’s unbearably painful, I can accept that.
But my writing is something else entirely. My writing is an act of trust with my reader. I’m in your head now. I don’t know what you think of yourself reading this, and if you spent the rest of your life describing it to me, I would never know. You trust me enough to let me come in here with you. I have to reward your trust – not by always agreeing with you, or giving you the ending you want, or shipping the same characters as you – but by being honest about who I am and what I think. If I write fiction, I have to write it as best I can and find the truth in my characters. If it’s a trial, like now, I have to start the job in good faith, get it at least halfway, and be as honest and clear about my review as possible. Anything less than that is a betrayal of your trust in me, word for word.
So it’s our relationship, yours and mine. But if I want to chop up pieces of my past, steal snippets of strangers’ conversation, untangle the threads of weft and weft from my friends’ souls, I must treat these with more care than everything in my physical life. I have to camouflage people enough to protect them; I have to open up to the bone. That’s the job, and it doesn’t change whether it’s a printed fiction, a book review, or a handful of words on a TV show – it’s still the job. Nothing less is contents. I think we’re all a little tired of content. And lying about yourself on the page, using your art to lie to people, to lull people into a sense of security that you know you won’t respect? Encouraging people to take your words into their heads – the most intimate relationship one person can have with another, really – and then betraying that trust? Create humans in your work, then treat flesh-and-blood humans as objects? All writers are liars, as Erasmus Fry says, yes, but lies are meant to be spotlights that seek the truth.
The sand man is a work of horror, and Richard Madoc is its most terrifying monster.
The combination of these two particular stories was interesting. Part of me wants to know what it would be like to pair ‘Calliope’ with ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, to show the entanglement of human creativity and Faustian pacts. (The adaptation’s Richard Madoc seems a bit abrupt, but also like an ambitious writer who wants to create a great work – much like the young Will Shaxberd. The Richard adaptation seems… decent, at first – until we see he’s made his Faustian pact and lost his “soul. The Madoc from the comics seems soulless at first.)
But putting these two Dreamland stories together the guiding line becomes Morpheus’ will to help those who call upon him. It seems to play into my thoughts on the first season as a whole, that Morpheus is pushed in a slightly more active direction. Whether it’s just Sturridge’s performance, which sort of exudes a suppressed empathy in a way I’ve never seen an actor, or a plan for the show to take a slightly different approach to how whose Morpheus interacts with life and with the decisions that will be launched. him, obviously remains to be seen if other seasons take place. Personally, I hope it’s the latter, simply because I like bold adaptations that do new things with the source material –The sand man is a rich text, and these stories could go in many different directions.