Neil Gaiman and Joseph Gordon-Levitt worked on a film adaptation of The Sandman, but the project ultimately fell apart in pre-production. It was far from the first attempt to adapt Gaiman's revered comic books either, following the abandoned movie and TV iterations developed in the 1990s and late 2000s.
Launched in 1989, the original Sandman comics ran for 75 issues and told the story of Morpheus, Lord of Dreams, and his siblings The Endless. Gaiman's graphic novels have long been celebrated for their gorgeously surreal visuals and rich blend of genres, literary influences, and grounded storytelling. A film adaptation entered development in the mid-1990s, with Pulp Fiction co-writer Roger Avary attached to direct from a script by future Pirates of the Caribbean writers Ted Elliott and Terry Rossio. It fell apart after Avary was dropped over creative differences, and subsequent attempts to develop a Sandman movie in the '90s and '00s similarly failed to get off the ground (as did the proposed TV show by Eric Kripke in 2010).
Finally, in 2013, Gordon-Levitt entered talks to direct and star in a movie adaptation of The Sandman. Jack Thorne (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child) was hired to write the film shortly after, and Gaiman was actively involved in plotting the project's creative direction from the very beginning. Things seemed to be moving along steadily for the next two years, with production expected to begin in 2016. Instead, Gordon-Levitt stepped away in March 2016 and the movie collapsed altogether by the end of that year.
It's long been reported that Gordon-Levitt left The Sandman movie over creative differences with the Warner Bros.-owned New Line Cinema. Gaiman tweeted his public support for Gordon-Levitt right after his departure, calling him "smart, honest & really nice" and saying that he would gladly work with the actor-filmmaker on another project. New Line hired Eric Heisserer (Arrival, Bird Box) to work on The Sandman script just before Gordon-Levitt stepped down, but he ended up officially leaving the project by the following November. In an interview at the time, Heisserer said that after having multiple conversations with Gaiman he "came to the conclusion that the best version of this property exists as an HBO series or limited series", and recommended that WB take it to TV instead.
While there could be more to the story than what's been revealed, it seems that Gaiman and Gordon-Levitt simply didn't see eye to eye on The Sandman movie with New Line. Gordon-Levitt frequently talked about making a film that honored the spirit of Gaiman's comics, but made some major changes to the story and narrative structure, so it's possible that New Line and WB wanted something more faithful to the source material. A TV series would make more sense for an adaptation like that, seeing as its layout is an inherently better match for the original graphic novels' episodic formatting. Amazon has enjoyed success with a similarly long-form adaptation of Gaiman and Terry Pratchett's Good Omens novel, as has Starz with American Gods (a TV show adaptation of Gaiman's book), and Fox with Lucifer (a series based on Sandman's version of the title character), before Netflix picked it up.
Speaking of Netflix: the company is now moving forward with a Sandman TV show that has Gaiman serving as an executive producer alongside David S. Goyer (who was also a producer on the abandoned film). It's safe to say that Gordon-Levitt's movie will never be revisited at this point, leaving fans to wonder what might've been, had the actor-filmmaker actually gotten to bring his vision of Morpheus' story to the big screen.
We will keep you updated on Netflix's The Sandman as more details become available.