Editor’s Note: The following contains The Sandman spoilers.While Netflix’s adaptation of Neil Gaiman‘s The Sandman follows the same storyline as the comic books, the series also changes a few things in main characters’ origins, including John Dee (David Thewlis). In the comic books, Gaiman tried to write the Endless epic inside the confines of the DC universe. So, when it was time to choose the big villain for his first volume, Preludes and Nocturnes, the writer used a forgotten Justice League villain, John Dee, aka Doctor Destiny. However, for the series, Netflix couldn’t use other DC characters, which led them to adapt the villain’s origin. So, who is John Dee in Netflix’s The Sandman? And how did they change the villain for the live-action adaptation?
Instead of picking an existent villain and pitching him against Morpheus (Tom Sturridge), The Sandman leans over John Dee’s connection to Morpheus’s imprisonment. That’s because, in the series, John Dee is the unwanted child of Roderick Burgess, os Magus (Charles Dance), the master of the mystic arts who summoned and trapped Morpheus for over a century. John’s mother, Ethel Cripps (Niamh Walsh /Joely Richardson), flees from Magus once she finds out she’s pregnant – Magus wants to force her to get an abortion. She also steals Dream’s tools from Magus’ vault, a choice that, unfortunately, would forever curse her son.
To escape London and make a life for herself in America, Ethel sells the Pouch of Dream Sand. She also trades Dream’s Helm with a demon from hell in exchange for an amulet of protection. The Dreamstone ruby, however, she keeps for herself, lending the jewel to her son on his birthdays, so he could make his dreams come true. Addicted to the power of the Dreamstone, John steals the tool from his mother and changes its properties so it would only ever respond to his dreams. However, the Dreamstone power is too much for any human mind to handle, and once John loses control, he ends up murdering many people. That’s why Ethel decides to lock up her son in a mental institution, where he remains for thirty years. Worse, Ethel instructs the doctors never to mention the Dreamstone, deceiving John about the artifact’s existence.
After Morpheus escapes his prison, the Corinthian (Boyd Holbrook) realizes his former master will try to recover his tools. Wanting to prevent Morpheus from retrieving his lost powers, the Nightmare convinces Ethel she’s in danger. Scared about the possibility that Morpheus is coming to take revenge on her and John for stealing his tools, Ethel goes to visit her son in the mental facility. There, she gifts him her amulet of protection, asking him never to go after the Dreamstone again.
Despite Ethel’s pleas, John uses the amulet of protection to escape the mental facility and go after the ruby. After decades of heavy medication and being lied to about the Dreamstone’s existence and powers, John developed a pathological aversion to any kind of lies. Of course, as we all know, lying is part of adult life and an important tool to use in everyday life. Unable to understand this, John uses the Dreamstone to remove lies from the waking world. And that, of course, leads to humans giving into their deepest desires without thinking about the consequences, which in turn leads to a lot of destruction.
Removing every kind of lie from the world also removes dreams. So, John’s childish visions of truths and lies result in the disappearance of hope, fantasy, and wishful thinking. It’s no wonder he becomes one of Morpheus’ greatest enemies, as the King of Dreams’ responsibility is to ensure people in the waking world can keep dreaming, so that life can be bearable.
Netflix’s The Sandman keeps all the powers of John Dee and his position as Morpheus’ first big nemesis. However, the series erases the villain’s connection to the Justice League, focusing only on his family history. This allows the series to explore the villain’s broken psyche, turning him into a terrifying bad guy. And with Thewlis’ brilliant performance bringing John Dee to life, Netflix’s series becomes the best adaption of the story we could have dreamed of.