In 2022, we’ve finally reached a point where a video game adapted into a movie or TV show isn’t an immediate cause for stress and nail biting. We’re living in the age of two surprisingly good Sonic the Hedgehog movies, a delightful live-action Pokemon movie, a Mortal Kombat reboot that doesn’t shy away from the red stuff, and a reverent but tongue-in-cheek Rampage movie. There’s even a slavishly loyal Phoenix Wright movie directed by Takashi Miike. It turns out that giving people what they want is a good starting point for adapting a video game.
The fact is that after a series of successful adaptations, it becomes clear that reverence is not enough. You can just replay the game if you want some reverence. Something else, an x-factor, must transport a property into a new medium. For Sonic, it’s ultimately the continuing story of a lonely child trying to build a chosen family. Detective Pikachu had a surprisingly well-done mystery angle involving Pokémon/human segregation. Silent Hill – for my money, the best video game movie adaptation – just leans into becoming an American giallo movie, an abduction mystery wrapped in a terrifying piece of religious cult morality. Giving people what they want is one thing, but adapting a game successfully often involves giving those characters and their worlds what they really need to become viable stories that attempt to transcend the limitations of storytelling. games ; that is, story must often take precedence over player agency. Recent game adaptations of games have been marvelous, that’s for sure, but only one major work has managed to be more than its source material: Netflix’s Castlevania.
Netflix’s adaptation of Castlevania is a full creative circle situation. The game series started in 1986 as a gothic love letter to old school Western horror movies, featuring all the classic universal monsters – Dracula, the Werewolf, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s Monster, etc. – against a man who fights with a deliberate homage to Indiana Jones. ‘ whisk. When the series evolved with Dracula X: Rondo of Blood in 1993, the main point of artistic influence seemed to be the classic manga/anime Vampire Hunter D, and this anime influence eventually became the template for the next two decades of games. Castlevania. Netflix’s Castlevania represents a logical endpoint. Its anime-influenced art style adopts the clean, crisp lines and understated, subtle animations of Yoshitaka Amano – yes, that original Yoshitaka Amano work on Vampire Hunter D, with more than a little Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s work on the Sequel to the film, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, added for good measure, but its focus and attitude are thoroughly Western, thanks to its showrunner, acclaimed comic book writer Warren Ellis.
On paper, it hits the right rhythms of the games plot. After his human wife, Lisa, is burned at the stake, Dracula embarks on an unholy war of revenge that ravages the Romanian province of Wallachia. Meanwhile, Trevor Belmont, wielding an ancient whip forged for the sole purpose of killing vampires, takes over the family business and goes in search of Dracula, accompanied by some new friends: the witch Sypha Belnades, and Dracula’s own son. Dracula, Alucard. It’s pretty archetypal, but Ellis’ scripts certainly aren’t. Originally intended to be a trilogy of live-action films circa 2007, the show’s first two seasons are archetypical only in that they’re exactly what you’d expect from Warren Ellis at the time they were originally written. Dracula, a fairly simple and easy-to-write villain if there ever was one, is a reclusive and taciturn lord who develops a new taste for life – and not just blood – after Lisa arrives in his house. chateau. The two strike up a friendship and then a romance based on intellectual curiosity and faith in the potential for the world to evolve. When she is burned at the stake for daring to bring science and knowledge to a populace ruled by the Catholic Church, it feels less like a wicked origin story than a true tragedy, a chilling outburst of grief that blames the fanaticism and ignorance more than it condemns the bloodsucker at its center. But in case you need straight-up horror, the invasion begins with Dracula’s furious face appearing from the sky and melting into a rain of vicious demons that immediately begin tearing the populace to shreds.
There’s a small blessing in working from a premise where a lot of the interpersonal relationships that make for good storytelling haven’t yet been fulfilled, but the number of video game movies that fill the void with more action or humor while being mediocre at the same time is higher than it should be. Meanwhile, most of them – the Castlevania series included – also don’t deal with characters that are real enough to warrant taking the material seriously. Netflix’s Castlevania ensemble cast is a massive web of regrets, mad ambitions, broken naivety and poetic misanthropy, and largely characters who barely make an impact in the games.
One of the series’ best characters, the necromancer Isaac – from the largely forgotten Lament of Innocence sequel, Curse of Darkness – is a generic villain whose sole purpose is to find a host body to resurrect Dracula. The show already molds something special and unique in him from the start, making him a very subtly coded black man and asexual, carefully navigating survival among abject hedonists capable of ripping his head off at any moment. . The series continues, with Dracula no longer a factor in his life, he embarks on one of the most intriguing journeys of self-knowledge, human observation, and gray morality in the entire series, slowly becoming a protagonist in his own right. , but also , fascinating, not the hero. This character just doesn’t happen in most media, and his development here is one of the best things about a show that traffics in wonderful stuff. Carmilla, a recurring but ultimately inconsequential boss of the games, is written as a dark queen, one of the few people not only fully aware of the evil of working for Dracula, but has no desire to stop wiping out Romania. . His series finale scene is one of the most gloriously provocative and wicked moments of any character in a moving medium in recent years. Along the way is a great menagerie of broken people, godly men of faith, greedy compulsive sidekicks, and, at times, true heroes and allies who are always working to make the world a better place.
At the heart of it all, however, are Trevor Belmont, Sypha Belnades and Alucard. None of them were particularly rich characters in their respective games. All three were introduced in Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse – that game’s fourth playable character, the agile pirate Grant DaNasty, is rewritten as a thief in season 4 of the series – but none of them made a big impression beyond novelty at the very time of having multiple playable characters and endings. Even Alucard becoming the leader of Symphony of the Night didn’t add much. It is, of course, an absolute masterpiece of a game, but beyond that a sprinkling or two of added pathos between Alucard and Dracula – aided by a boss fight with a succubus impersonating Lisa – plot isn’t really a huge factor in this.
On Netflix, however, we have, in essence, a bickering bunch, with a drunken Trevor driven to sober up over the evil of Dracula, an Alucard mentally ready to murder his father, but physically and emotionally unprepared, and a Sypha who is determined to do what is necessary, but absolutely cannot do it alone. Their collective account with all that must be done, all that must die on the way to Dracula’s Gate, and, indeed, with each other, is beautifully explored; a slow and steady burn of character development that earns the series its shameless action movie moments. The series’ only fan-service moment involves one of the games’ signature music tracks – Bloody Tears, from Simon’s Quest – highlighting the exact moment the trio takes down Dracula’s personal guard as a concerted unit. It’s a great time, but it’s not the time when the show gets really special. This is what happens after.
At the end of this very episode – the end of the second season – our trio battle Dracula. His defeat does not come until he faces Alucard one-on-one, but he eventually realizes which room of the castle the fight has spilled over to: Alucard’s childhood bedroom. The bloodlust leaves Dracula’s eyes, the enormity of what he has done crumbles. There is no big demon climax here. There’s no in-game moment where Dracula’s castle sinks into the sea. It’s Dracula who quietly realizes what he’s doing: “Lisa…I’m killing our boy.”
Alucard does the deed. As sweet as a stake may be in the heart, with remorse and pity. The next episode shows Trevor and Sypha and Dracula’s armies regrouping and taking stock, but the season ends with Alucard, having decided to take over stewardship of Dracula’s castle, collapsing and crying. It’s incredibly powerful, and even far from what anyone wanted or expected from a show based on Castlevania. But there it was, the death of Dracula, one of the most heartbreaking moments to ever happen on television. At that point, the show truly transcended its source material.
The show actually ran for two more seasons, getting slightly messier as Wallachia deals with the evil power vacuum left by Dracula. The fourth season in particular was affected by the limited participation of Warren Ellis, due to allegations of abuse that came to light – well documented and worth reading here – and a fifth season without Ellis, which is supposed to completely skip Simon Belmont and go straight to Richter. adventures with Maria Renard during the French Revolution, is still currently in limbo at the time of this writing. But Castlevania, as it currently stands, still manages to take what could have been a basic, visceral joy of watching witty vampire hunters slay a group of vampires, and give it more nuance than he never needed or arguably deserved it. No video game has made the leap to another medium with this kind of success, or dares to go where Castlevania does. Even with an HBO show based on The Last of Us in our future, it’s not easy to think of another series that could ever aim that high and achieve its goal.
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