Art evolves and changes with the times. It reacts, provokes and inspires. Films, literature, music and games have all changed and mutated and evolved into new forms with new ways of telling stories. Video game adaptations have not. Be they films or TV shows nearly every video game adaptation to have been released since video games first landed in the public consciousness has been terrible, until now that is.
The Angelina Jolie Tomb Raider films tried to build their world on sexy action and a few scant scraps of the games’ mythology. DOOM managed to put the final nail in the coffin for the action-horror genre until Overlord came out this year. The Resident Evil series has its fans but the films have deviated so far from the games that there’s no real point trying to compare the two anymore. Assassin’s Creed made a mockery of an already ludicrous premise with sound design that made footsteps sound like earthquakes. The less said about Uwe Boll’s movies the better. But the tide might be turning with the recent Netflix adaptation of the popular Konami series Castlevania.
The Castlevania series of games is long and winding with plenty of prequels, sequels and spin-offs but it’s main entries such as Symphony of the Night and Rondo of Blood focus on the Belmont Family’s ceaseless quest to kill Count Dracula. Despite his numerous deaths the immortal vampire returns every 100 years only for a Belmont to kill him again. The Netflix series follows Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage) and his reluctant quest to stop Dracula (Graham McTavish) from destroying the world. Aiding Trevor are Dracula’s half-human son Alucard (James Callis) and magician Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso).
Let’s make one thing perfectly clear: Castlevania is not perfect but when compared with nearly every other video game adaptation out there it stands head and shoulders above the rest. You would think that animation is the perfect format to adapt video games with considering that games themselves are interactive animations but a long list of Final Fantasy and Resident Evil CGI films stand in the way of that kind of thinking. So the decision was made to adapt Castlevania as an anime with 2D animation.
The animation is the draw of the show. From the backgrounds to the key frames to the deceptively detailed character designs Castlevania establishes its sense of place and the people (and monsters) that inhabit that place with an ease a great deal of other shows find difficult. The backgrounds especially in the Medieval towns and in Dracula’s architecturally impossible castle are all painted in the kind of smudged style popular among artists like Goya and other Gothic artists. It’s the characters that bring these nightmarish paintings to vivid life.
If we’re going to talk about anime then we should talk about Castlevania’s closest cousin. Berserk is one of the longest running manga (comic) in Japan with a convoluted but captivating storyline about a revenge seeking travelling swordsman named Guts. It’s battle scenes and characters are exceptionally detailed depicting a land of constant bloody war and the toll exacted by those fighting it. Castlevania’s use of absurd monsters, insane weaponry and attention to gory detail bring it to a level with Berserk at least in terms of its animation. Castlevania wears its influences on its sleeve and its cast and script reflect this but with an added does of humour.
The level of cursing in Castlevania is not necessarily unusual for the adult animation that it is but the creativity of the cursing should be noted. Trevor and Alucard’s relationship is rocky at the best of times and often devolves into ugly, sweary spats usually fueled by Trevor’s immaturity and Alucard’s vampiric streak of cruelty. A typical exchange as an example then:
Sypha: I will go find us a covered wagon and horses if you two can stop fighting.
Alucard: Oh please, we’re not children.
Sypha raises her hood and leaves.
Trevor: Eat shit and die.
Alucard: Yes, fuck you.
The above is a typical example but more creative insults such as “cock wart” exist as well. It’s a testament to the writing ability of Warren Ellis that he can keep jokes such as these in a script loaded with the melodrama and pathos that serious adaptations of Dracula often bring with them. On one side of the coin is the hero’s journey. That of Trevor acknowledging his need to take up his family’s legacy and kill the sworn enemy of his ancestors. On the other side is a tale that reads like a long, winding suicide note.
Dracula is a compelling villain. The death of his human lover Lisa – Alucard’s mother in the first season – leads him to declare war on the human race and begin to decimate his home province of Wallachia. He is however a tragic figure spurred on only by vengeance. Lisa had given him a new lease on life or at least undeath and encouraged him to travel the world to learn about humans and their cultures. While on his travels Lisa is arrested and burned at the stake for witchcraft. Needless to say Dracula is not happy but the second season never really addresses the varied effects grief has on Dracula instead it views him through the eyes of his war council who begin to distrust Dracula’s urge to wipe out their only food source. It’s not the best way to empathise with a villain, humanising him through the eyes of monsters, but it worked for me at least.
Castlevania was renewed for a third season shortly after the second was released. Netflix’s commitment is admirable but they should be selective if they want to adapt more like Castlevania. Devil May Cry is a good choice but video game adaptations still have a long way to go before they can reach the audiences that studios have wanted them to reach for so long now.