Adventures and Victories: How Netflix’s Castlevania Transcends Its Source Material

In the year 2022, we’ve finally come to a point where a video game being adapted into a film or a TV show isn’t an immediate cause of stress and nail-biting. We live in an age of two shockingly good Sonic the Hedgehog movies, a delightful live-action Pokemon film, a Mortal Kombat reboot that doesn’t shy from the red stuff, and a reverent but tongue-in-cheek Rampage movie. There’s even a slavishly faithful Phoenix Wright movie directed by Takashi Miike of all people. As it turns out, giving the people what they want is a pretty good place to start when adapting a video game.

Thing is, after a string of successful adaptations, it’s becoming clear that reverence isn’t enough. You can just play the game again if you want reverence. Something else, an x-factor, has to carry a property into a new medium. For Sonic, it’s ultimately the ongoing story of a lonely kid trying to build a chosen family. Detective Pikachu had a surprisingly well-done mystery angle involving Pokemon/human segregation. Silent Hill–for my money, the best video game movie adaptation altogether–just leans into becoming an American giallo film, a kidnapping mystery wrapped in a terrifying religious cult morality play. Giving the people what they want is one thing, but adapting a game successfully often involves giving these characters and their worlds what they actually need to become viable stories that attempt to transcend the storytelling limitations of games; that is, story often having to take a backseat to the player’s agency. The recent game adaptations of games have been wonderful, to be certain, but only one major work has managed to be more than its source material: Netflix’s Castlevania.

Alucard in Netflix's Castlevania
Alucard in Netflix’s Castlevania

Netflix’s adaptation of Castlevania is a creative full circle situation. The game series started in 1986 as a gothic love letter to old-school Western horror films, with all the classic Universal Monsters–Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, Frankenstein’s monster, etc–vs one man fighting with a deliberate homage to Indiana Jones’ whip. When the series evolved with 1993’s Dracula X: Rondo of Blood, the main point of artistic influence appeared to be classic manga/anime Vampire Hunter D, and that anime influence ultimately became the template for the next two decades of Castlevania games. Netflix’s Castlevania represents a logical endpoint. Its anime-influenced art-style adopts the sleek, sharp lines and reserved, subtle animations of Yoshitaka Amano’s–yes, that Yoshitaka Amano–original work on Vampire Hunter D, with more than a little of Yoshiaki Kawajiri’s work on the film sequel, Vampire Hunter D: Bloodlust, thrown in for good measure, but its focus and attitude are thoroughly Western, thanks to its showrunner, famed comics writer Warren Ellis.

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Author: Justin Clark