Netflix’s critically-lauded Castlevania heralds a new approach to adapting video games.
There are a few essential truths in this world: death, taxes, and Hollywood fucking up video game adaptations. You can practically set your watch by it. And sure, a 28% on Rotten Tomatoes didn’t stop Warcraft from becoming the highest-grossing video game movie of all time, but it would be a stretch to call it a critical success. And there’s the rub: even when adaptations worm their way into the hearts and pockets of fans (helloooo Silent Hill), historically, video game adaptations are reviled by critics, and usually with good reason.
But then 2017 gave us a blood-soaked gift in the form of Netflix’s Castlevania, the first video game adaptation to score a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Whatever justified ill will harbored for RT, there hasn’t exactly been a hung jury when it comes to video game adaptations, which have never even come close to cracking 60% on the Tomatometer. But there it is: Castlevania, sitting pretty at 85%.
Castlevania is being heralded as one of the best video game adaptations of all time. And while arguably that isn’t saying much because the bar is so very, very low, here’s the thing: Castlevania is an absolute goddamn blast, and has raised the bar for video game adaptations to come.
The Netflix show (which is really a 100-minute-long, four-part movie) is a partial retelling of the 1989 NES title Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, which saw Trevor Belmont, the last surviving member of the excommunicated monster-hunting Belmont clan, take on Dracula in an attempt to save 15th Century Europe from total annihilation. Like most Castlevania games, you could write the entire plot of Dracula’s Curse on a post-it note. And to be clear, that isn’t a bad thing. More than any incompatibility between the supposedly “rival mediums” of film and video games, what actually does set video games apart is that story isn’t necessarily at the core of their appeal. This is why I lost over $20.00 worth of quarters to Atari’s Tempest. And this is why using Wikipedia synopses as a primary source isn’t the greatest way to faithfully adapt a video game (*ahem* Assassin’s Creed).
Among other gooey, campy, stylish things, Castlevania is a success because its showrunners (Adi Shankar and Warren Ellis) saw something worth adapting outside of the scant narrative of Dracula’s Curse: the thrill of exploring creepy arcane spaces; a varied arsenal of compelling weaponry; an oppressive (and engrossing) gothic aesthetic. The result is something that is at once estranged from the Castlevania games, and at the same time completely faithful to the spirit of one. It freaking works.
This isn’t to say that Castlevania skimps on narrative. Hell, the show’s first episode endows the big bad Dracula with more pathos and nuance than any characterization in the games (no small thanks to Graham McTavish’s commanding voice work). The show opens with Lisa (Emily Swallow), a headstrong and good-hearted woman, braving a corpse-sprinkled landscape to find Dracula, who she believes can teach her “the true science” and help her yank her people out of the dark ages. While idealistic young blonde women waltzing wistfully into the castles of vampires rarely pays off, an exchange ensues that is equal parts tense and teasing (“I could teach you to like people, or tolerate them…or stop putting them on sticks”). Finally, charmed, Dracula agrees. Unfortunately, the church (the actual big bad of the show) is less than jazzed about Lisa’s quest for knowledge. And when Dracula finds out that Lisa has been burnt at the stake as a witch, well…hell hath no fury like a supernatural being who’s been personally slighted by humanity. What follows is Army of Darkness by way of the “Hellfire” sequence from Disney’s Hunchback of Notre Dame, with the reluctant, mostly drunk Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) as our despondent, whip-cracking guide.
With Netflix’s patented “the thing worked, let’s keep doing the thing” model in mind, Castlevania might very well signal a bright new future for video game adaptations. As Wired’s Julie Muncy points out, the success of Castlevania means we might be in for a whole slew of mid-budget video game adaptations, and frankly, yes please thank you. And the giant, set-piece cogs are already in motion: Netflix has already optioned the massively popular Witcher series, and have their eye on an original anime based on Ubisoft’s Assassin’s Creed franchise (which, wouldn’t you know it, Shankar is attached to).
That this promising new age of video game adaptations has emerged in the same year that we finally witnessed the death throes of the fifteen-year-long run of the most financially successful video game adaptation of all time feels somewhat fitting. Resident Evil: The Final Chapter marks the end of an era of a lucrative if critically-panned, series that was, ultimately, more Paul W.S. Anderson genre vehicle than video game adaptation.
The poorest domestic performer to date, The Final Chapter is a beleaguered swan song of an approach to adaptation that might just go extinct as more efforts like Castlevania are given a platform. Heck, maybe even that 6-film James Wan helmed reboot of Resident Evil will be more faithful and more widely well-received than its predecessor. The games are mutable as all hell; why should films wearing its name like a Buffalo Bill skin suit be any different?
In an interview with Rotten Tomatoes this past summer, Shankar described what he felt set Castlevania apart in a sea of disappointing adaptations, and what kind of video game films we should not only expect, but demand, from filmmakers moving forward:
The struggle for a lot of people adapting video games is they aren’t gamers. They don’t actually like the thing[…]We are of that generation who were lied to and mis-marketed to. It’s about growing up and watching things that you love being disrespected and going, ‘No when I get the opportunity, I’m not going to fuck that shit up.’
And there it is: gamers who grew up loving games and being burned by Hollywood suits who didn’t are starting to carve out a space for adaptations that don’t miss the point of why folks enjoyed the source material in the first place. What a time to be alive.
Castlevania is currently streaming on Netflix and has been renewed for a second season, which will consist of twice as many episodes because shut up don’t question it we’ve been blessed.