On Adaptations and Empathy

Recently Netflix aired the first season of their adaptation of The Sandman, and I finally got a chance to watch it.

I loved the original comics, it’s one of my favourite works. I also listened to the audible production and I liked that one too.

So, like everyone on the internet, I am going to share my opinion on the tv series, and also on other adaptations, geopolitics, and everything else.

I mean, it’s a blog.

For those that don’t know anything about The Sandman, feel free to skip this part. Be warned, spoilers ahead.

Netflix’s Sandman

The important thing to know about the Netflix adaptation is that it saw the direct involvement of Neil Gaiman, the original author of the comics. This is, in theory, great.

The problem is: usually, when a work is adapted to a different media you can be angry at whoever ruined the thing you loved, but in this case that would be the same person who created it!

In particular, people got angry for a few specific reasons, and I’ll try to review them.

Woke casting

People accused the produces of changing characters to fit recent diversity-satisfying trends. This is the “Death was a goth with pale skin, she can’t be a black girl!“. This is, generally speaking, a pretty stupid objection, even if it is true.

The original comic was “woke” before the expression existed, sporting trans and non-binary characters, gays and lesbians, mixed ethnicities…

Generally having that typical ’80/90s “we should love each other even if we’re different” brand of good sentiments that you may remember from We Are the World or successful ads.

So, Gaiman did more of the same, intentionally. I don’t feel it’s reasonable to be upset about this.

But personally: we didn’t get John Constantine! I don’t mind that we got a Johanna, but I do mind that we went from a loser kind of guy with bad hair and a shitty trench coat to a fancy lady with a white immaculate one. Still, I don’t think it matters much.

Also, I didn’t particularly like Lucifer’s casting, nor Dream itself, nor Lucien. I did like Death a lot, and Desire, and John Dee, so I hope I’m not just being an old fart.

Plot changes

This relates to changes small and large, such as Dr. Dee not killing the lady who gave him a ride, his mother helping him, Dream recovering part of his powers by uncreating Gregory, the diner episode being vastly different, the battle with Lucifer instead of Choronzon, the Burgess story being somewhat different etc.

Overall, I don’t think these changes matter nor do they bother me much, but I feel many of them share a common trait: this version of Sandman, both tale and character, is kinder.

As an example, consider the Calliope episode. The original story is a lot more harsh, showing her always(?) naked and making the rape and abuse feel very real. I can understand why that might not fly on general audience TV. Also, using raped women as props is not great anyway, so she got more characterization for TV, which is good.

But then, at the end of the TV episode, she goes “to inspire the world anew” while in the comics she just goes on to fade from the world, the era of greek muses long gone. I liked the old ending more.

More importantly, the relation between her and Dream differs. In the original story Dream is very cold to her, as essentially he’s a dick.

The same is true for the story of Nada, which was omitted from the TV show. That story is great, because it shows Dream falling in love, and being angry and unfair and egotistical.

This was great, because Dream needs to be a piece of shit at the beginning of the story, or it will not matter to us that he needs to change.

Gaiman famously summed up the comic with the line

The Lord of Dreams learns that one must change or die, and makes his decision.

But in the TV show he’s just.. grumpy? By making the character less unlikeable, we automatically get a less interesting development. I don’t understand what the producers were going for.

Missing DC references

The original comics were firmly set in the DC universe. This meant that there were a ton of DC characters all over the place, some you may not even have noticed (Cain, Abel, Eve , Lucien…).

Many important ones, like Batman and Joker have been omitted from the TV adaptation altogether. This seems more a case of avoiding legal trouble than anything else, and I honestly didn’t miss them at all.

Am I lost in Translation?

So, yeah, I think the Netflix Adaptation is ok, but I do have a few gripes with it. But one may wonder: am I just an old fart who hates change, and I would never be happy with any adaptation?

Dear Reader, I think I am not. In fact, I believe the Audible’s audio adaptation is almost perfect. It has incredible cast, great production and is 100% better than Netflix’s, and in some ways better than the comics.

It only has 3 defects

  • some of the background sound effects are too loud
  • some of the special effects on voices make them too hard to understand
  • for some reason they dubbed Death so it sounds like a 13yo who can’t speak properly

Maybe I have a specific issue with screen adaptations? Let’s review some.

A triptych of screen adaptations

As evidence that I do like screen adaptations even if they deviate from the source material, I will list 3 where I liked both the comic book version and the screen one, as I (re-)watched or (re-)read these recently.

V for Vendetta

The 2005 movie is quite faithful to the source comics, and I love it. There are some fundamental differences (e.g. the Leader in the movie is an a-dimensional bad guy; V in the comic is darker, crazier and less likeable) but it’s pretty great anyway! In fact, I think I enjoyed the movie more than I enjoyed the comics.

Bu I have seen the movie before the comic, maybe that tinted my opinion? Let’s try another one.

All you need is kill

Here, I read the manga after I watched the movie The Edge of Tomorrow. Interestingly, they are both adaptations, the original source being a light novel.

I think they are both good, but the manga has a better plot, with a nicer ending. The movie devolves into standard hollywood good-kill-bad happy ending, while the manga/light novel keeps you on your toes with an ethical conundrum and leaves you once that is solved, the ongoing alien invasion remaining in the background. Once the battle for the character’s soul is done, we don’t really need to care too much about aliens.

But ok, this was a manga, what about western stuff?

Watchmen

I loved the Watchmen graphic novel, including the squid bit. But I loved the movie too!

First, it has gorgeous photography and great casting.

Second, it has one of the best intro ever made for a movie, managing to sum up an entire backstory in 5 minutes of stunning imagery and perfect soundtrack.

Third, the changes from the original material are there and not always good (Rorschach becomes a positive character, the sex scene is far too long, the lack of squids disappointing), but they don’t really impact the plot.

Is it the same as the original graphic novel? Nope, but it’s still good.

The problem with people

So, I don’t think I’m particularly biased against adaptations, but I just don’t think The Sandman on Netflix was very good. I would watch another season, but heck, I watched the Cuphead show too.

But the whole kerfuffle was interesting to me. A lot of people got pissed off by the adaptation, and Neil Gaiman has been kind of a dick to some of them, much like they were being dicks to him.

I have seen people get upset at adaptations for a long time, and I have been upset myself. When the revolution comes, people who produced The Dark Tower movie will be the first against the wall.

But why do people get upset? Some of the people who make noise about media products do it out of general politicking: they don’t care about the material, and are just looking for an excuse to spew their favorite opinions. Shit there’s people arguing about a homosexual couple in Peppa Pig these days.

Some others get upset because they love the material, and feel betrayed. It’s easy to frame everyone who got upset about Death being black as being a racist bigot, but I think some of them genuinely just loved the specific representation of the character and wanted to see that.

Did you notice it? I did the same about the audio version of Death.

If you spent a bunch of time with anything it becomes part of your identity, and when someone makes an adaptation which does not match your interpretation you perceive it as an attack on you.

This is essentially the reason why italians get mad at foreigners’ faux italian food.

Fans are people

And the thing is, it doesn’t really matter if the consumer of a work is aligned with the author. Alan Moore famously said

[Rorschach] is what Batman would be in the real world.

But I have forgotten that actually to a lot of comic fans, ‘smelling’, ‘not having a girlfriend’, these are actually kind of heroic!

So Rorschach became the most popular character in Watchmen. I made him to be a bad example. But I have people come up to me in the street and saying: ‘I AM Rorschach. That is MY story’.

And I’d be thinking: Yeah, great. Could you just, like, keep away from me, never come anywhere near me again as long as I live?

For those people, Rorschach is good, and he’s part of their identity. Changing it would upset them.

Dear Reader, I know what you’re thinking: but Gabriele, these are idiots, and we should tell them to fuck off.

Well, I agree in part. But I think it’s worth exercising some empathy anyway. Yes, some people hold opinions that I find reproachable, but I think we should try to be compassionate. It’s easy to be nice to those you like, but we should be nice to those we don’t.

As the saying goes, do not judge someone until you walked a mile in their shoes.

Authors are people too

At the same time, fans should try to show empathy to authors too. Yes, maybe an adaptation is not a good as the original, but have you considered the author’s reason?

This could be the best they could do, and you would have done the same.

Or maybe the author changed over time? I’m pretty sure [email protected] is very different from [email protected]

Or maybe, they were trying to stick to a theme, and they have just produced a different representation of the same message.

Yes, sometimes people just make money-grab adaptations of something, which basically only share a name with the original (looking at you, I Robot).

In those cases, i recommend keeping your hopes up, and just consider this stuff as random productions you don’t care about.

Understand this does not damage your self. The thing you loved is still there. They made a shit job, but they also had reasons, you just don’t know why.

The problem with geopolitics

I am too incompetent to discuss about big themes, but I wanted to share a last thought: in Europe, a lot of attention in 2022 went to the Russia-Ukraine war. Maybe now we will now start paying attention to the Azerbaijan-Armenia war.

Wars are a terrible thing, we should help the people who are being attacked in every way, and condemn the attackers. There is no argument about this.

I just have a thought on talking about the war. You may unintentionally upset someone, and be hurt in return. Try to be tolerant and empathic, you don’t know what the others experienced.

A lot of good things start from empathy, maybe peace too, in the very long term.

Summer readings 2021, part 2 (Comics)

This summer I finally caught up with a bunch of small comics I had kept on the side, but it would make little sense to discuss all those.

Rather, I’d like to mention a few larger things which had been recommended to me. Spoiler: I liked them all.

Providence

This is a completed 12-issue series written by Alan Moore. It’s part of a larger trilogy (with Neonomicon and The Courtyard) of Lovecraft-inspired stories, and I found it quite entertaining. Basically, Moore plays with the Lovecraft material by having the main character encounter various elements of his legendarium, and tying them up with some of Moore’s favorite obsessions.

I think it’s a good comic, but not fantastic, but if you like either Lovecraft, Moore, or In the Mouth of Madness you will enjoy this one too.

6.5/10: bit more than a passing grade, saved by the ending.

Les Indes fourbes

This is a french comic book (and indeed, the only page on wikipedia for it is in french) but I read the version in italian by Rizzoli Lizard (Nelle Indie Perigliose §).

It’s a picaresque graphic novel inspired by an actual novel from the XVII century, and if you like the genre (I do!) you will love it. The plot is good, the characters entertaining, the writing is great.

As a visual thing: this thing is gorgeous. The art is outstanding, rich in details, cleverly structured, and it makes full use of the medium, as a comic book should. Moreover, the edition is a thing of beauty, as a 33.2 x 24.8 (cm) hardcover it might be a bit hard to fit on a shelve, but I’d leave this thing laying around for the sheer joy of looking at it.

9/10: almost perfect.

The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage

This is an odd book, and by the end I enjoyed it but.. I’m unsatisfied. I went into the book expecting to find either a semiserious account of Lovelace & Babbage’s life, or a made up story using them as character.

What the book actually is: a series of episodes, using a cartoon/steampunk/uchronic version of the titular characters, with no actual plot. They’re entertaining, I really like the drawings and I loved the characters, but I’m left wanting more of them.

The other oddity is that each page is about 30% drawings and 70% footnotes explaining them. And each footnote has references to end-of-chapter notes. This is frustrating§ because you have to choose how to read this

  • read comic -> read footnote -> read endnote (requires you to keep a mental stack)
  • read comic -> read footnote; ignore endnotes (never!)
  • read comic -> read footnote; read all endnotes at the end (you will have forgotten what they’re about by the time you read them)

No choice is satisfactory, and I missed the effortless way you can follow up nested footnotes in, say, Terry Pratchett’s Discworld.

At the end of the book you have some appendixes on various things which I found quite dull, but might be of interest to some people.

So, the book is quite interesting, and if the author decided to actually write a steampunk novel using the characters I would run to buy it; but I got to the end of the book feeling that I had a lot of appetizers, and never got the main meal.

7-/10: could be great, but does not deliver.