Why Netflix’s Castlevania Succeeded | The Science of Adaptation

A little over a year ago, I wrote a post about the difficulty of adapting video games to film. This was just after the release of Warcraft, which wasn’t very good, and looking forward to the release of the Assassin’s Creed, which I thought lacked direction, but had potential to be good. An update: it wasn’t.

Up to that point, the “best” adaptations of video games were Resident Evil, Prince of Persia, and… um… the Angry Birds movie? Wow, pickings are slim. And none of these movies are spectacular. Or, um, particularly good.

Well, I had been on a bit of a vampire kick recently, reading ‘Salem’s Lot and Dracula in the lead-up to Halloween. That’s when I remembered that over the Summer, a friend of mine had recommended a Netflix series adapted from the video game series Castlevania. Castlevania tells the story of the Belmont family, who, over hundreds of years, slays vampires and various other monsters. The main villain in just about every game of the series – and of course, the Netflix series – is Draculaa variation on the classic Bram Stoker character.

Castlevania 5

High Production Value

If you’ve seen the series, you can tell that the animation is really something great. It’s crisp, dark, and beautiful. I don’t know how much else I can say about the animation. They use the color red a great deal, both to symbolize blood and to give the sky an appropriately eerie color. I’d say that it’s almost too much of one color, but when they use the color to provide such contrast with one of the monsters, whose eyes and teeth are vibrant blue, it pays off.

Let’s talk about the voice acting. It’s a four-episode anime miniseries, so you’d think they might not put their all into finding big name actors or voice actors, but main character Trevor Belmont is voiced by The Hobbit‘s Richard Armitage. Now, to be fair, Armitage isn’t quite an A-List or perhaps not even a B-List celebrity, but it’s worth noting that he got third billing in the Hobbit movies, behind Martin Freeman and Ian McKellan, which is certainly worth noting. And honestly, you listen to his performance, and he just feels like the right guy for the job. He brings a sharp sarcasm to every line, while still having a rich voice that makes you feel like he comes from a long line of powerful and historic vampire hunters. And everyone else in the cast does a fine job, but Armitage is really the driving force behind the voice performances.

A Distinct Character Arc

Castlevania 3

A crucial part of any story are character arcs. Every story can be measured by the amount of notable change in its characters. Now for a total of 94 minutes across four episodes, you can’t have a character arc for each and every character, and Castlevania doesn’t exactly flesh out each small character, but what can be said for the series is that it does put a significant amount of work into demonstrating how its protagonist Trevor grows over the course of the series.

If you’ve seen the series, I don’t need to summarize point-by-point Trevor’s arc. He starts off apathetic and drunk, but the way he is gradually pulled into the conflict, his interests change. Trevor goes from serving himself to serving others. It’s obviously not the most unique character arc, but it’s a well-defined one. It’s easy to see how he starts off simply trying to get by and over the course of the series seeks to help the Speakers and the citizens of Wallachia by stopping Dracula and the horde.

Exposition Isn’t Clunky

One positive aspect of the series was the way information was relayed to the audience. Video game adaptations might be inclined to have some booming voiceover talking about the mythos of the world the story is set in. This would be the easy way out. Instead, we get a few scenes which help to establish Dracula and his relationship to the country and church. On the other end, by having a few tavern-goers discuss House Belmont in front of Trevor shows how the public views House Belmont. But the scene does more than that; it establishes the fact that Trevor is an alcoholic who spends much of his time in taverns, but will still stand up for what he believes in. I really appreciated how easily this was all conveyed.

Sacrifices a Satisfying Moment for a Logical and Fulfilling One

Castlevania 4

Now this is the one substantial spoiler I’ll put in this post, so if you haven’t watched the series yet and don’t want to know what happens, scroll below the picture of Simon Belmont.

All right, so this is a very specific moment that I really liked. After Trevor is saved from the religious mob which seeks to burn him as a heretic, he encounters the violent and militant priest from earlier in the series. When the priest tries to get the mob to kill Trevor, Trevor instead demands that the two face off one-on-one. Perhaps because this was adapted from a video game, when Trevor challenged the priest I thought “Oh, here’s a mini-boss to fight.” And it was going to be badass – Trevor calling out the hypocrisy of a priest who carries a weapon, beats defenseless old men, and gets a mob to murder on his behalf – the scene was set for our mini-boss to get his comeuppance.

But rather than having the two fight, the mob heard what Trevor was saying about the priest and turned on him. This made perfect sense – the idea of a mob mentality is fickle, and when Trevor gets the chance to speak, the crowd listens and quickly strikes. Seeing Trevor fight the priest would have been thrilling and fun, but having the mob kill him was logical, and felt like poetic justice.

Castlevania 1

No Excessive Fan Service/Is Accessible to Newcomers

Now, it’s important to bear in mind that I say this without knowing a great deal about the Castlevania series; there weren’t any odd fan-service moments that I didn’t understand as a non-fan. If there were any moments or lines that made Castlevania fans shout with joy “I get that reference!” then they weren’t intrusive enough to take me out of the moment.

From what I do know, the most iconic Castlevania protagonist is Simon Belmont, and the main villain is Dracula, who appears in almost every game. Fittingly enough, they established Dracula as the overarching villain immediately. But they wisely saved Simon Belmont for later, opting for Trevor Belmont, who – as I learned in 5 minutes of research on Wikipedia – appears chronologically earlier. This way, fans have something to look forward to, and Castlevania doesn’t immediately show everything it has to offer.

Find a Medium that Works

When adapting games to screen, people assume that the game must be made for a live-action film on the big screen. I’m not sure this would have worked for Castlevania; something about a short anime series really worked where a live-action film might not have. There are things, such as the monsters and the exploding cities, that look beautiful in an anime art style that might not look as good if they were made with CGI. It’s hard to know in what ways adapting the same story for a feature film wouldn’t have worked, but simply put, I’m glad they chose to make it an anime series instead.

The One and Only Issue…

…is that it’s a little short. Not that 94 minutes isn’t enough time to tell a compelling story, but the way Trevor and Sypha had just raised Adrian from his coffin and were about to go to face Dracula or clear the city of demons or… well, it’s not abundantly clear. The episode just kind of ends. The logical explanation for this is that Netflix and the producers put out these first four episodes to make sure that the series was viable before spending money and effort on something they weren’t sure would work.

Castlevania 2

In Conclusion

The thing is, it’s all pretty straightforward. The developers just focused on presenting a good, interesting, and complete story, which was helped by the fact that it was an adaptation, but not the only thing which made this show what it was. What video-game-to-film adaptations or video-game-to-anime adaptations or… really any kind of adaptations can learn from bad adaptations is that if you’ve got a bad story, you’ve got nothing, and you’ve if you’ve got a good story, you’ve got just about everything. Adaptations like these should focus on being interesting and compelling first, and being a good adaptation second.

3 thoughts on “Why Netflix’s Castlevania Succeeded | The Science of Adaptation

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