CASTLEVANIA on Netflix has managed to accomplish something that is as rare as a well-written character in a Stephanie Myers book: it’s taken a video game property and made a great piece of television.
Video games have been turned into movies and television shows since the early 1980’s (you guys remember that Pac-Man Cartoon?), and yet very few of these have been much more than either cartoon commercials for children, or terribly plotted live-action films based loosely the core concept of the game from which they take their title. To be fair, until recently, video games had very basic plots that wouldn’t necessarily translate well to film. I mean, we all remember Uwe Boll's numerous failures. HOUSE OF THE DEAD? It was a zombie arcade rail shooter with just horrific voice acting and translation. What did we expect? That being said, there is space to tell a compelling story within the set framework of a particular game, and CASTLEVANIA proves that. A simple, loose guideline can allow for a story to really flourish. So I don’t really know what I am saying. Is there too much freedom or not enough? Maybe it shouldn’t have taken this long to get something as high quality as CASTLEVANIA, or maybe it’s as hard as it would appear.
I can’t help but be put in mind of the similarities video game adaptations share with comic book adaptations. Comic books are the perfect medium for comic books. Think about Alan Moore’s WATCHMEN. That is a perfectly formed and executed piece of art. It wouldn’t work as a novel, and it worked okay as a movie, I guess, but it was perfect as a comic book. The characters were pastiches of DC and Charlton Comics characters. There were excerpts of a pirate comic that has a whole rich history yet exists only in the Watchmen universe. There were psychiatric dossiers and official reports that came at the end of issues to help fill in the history of the characters. All of these little additions that make WATCHMEN such a perfect comic mean that as anything else, it falls well short. In much the same way, video games are the perfect medium for video games. Heavily action based (for the most part), a video game’s plot is written to include the most action and the least amount of exposition between action scenes. You are meant to play them, not just hold a controller and watch characters talk. With the exception of something like BIOSHOCK INFINITE, one plays a video game for the game part, and the story keeps you busy and give you context. Shooting a bunch of dudes is fun, but it is nice to know why you need to shoot a bunch of dudes.
So what happened with CASTLEVANIA? On its face, it’s a fairly simplistic game and plot, but with a distinct gothic style. Dracula is bad. You’re a vampire hunter named Belmont who is fond of whips. Go to Dracula’s castle, fight your way to him, and murder him good. Try not to sing DEVO the entire time. The various games give you some incarnation of this plot, with small differences, while staying true to the tone and style. Sometimes you’re Simon Belmont, sometimes you’re Trevor, and sometimes, as in “Symphony of the Night,” you’re Alucard, the reverse Dracula. Well, not really a reverse Dracula, because what would that be? Can’t go out at night and has to donate blood to survive? Alucard is the last descendant of Dracula, and he is trying to destroy the evil bloodline once and for all. So same as the Belmonts, just with a sword and neat Dracula powers instead of a whip and holy water grenades. But you get the idea. Simple, direct framework. CASTLEVANIA took those story elements and put them in the hands of an incredible and talented writer: Warren Ellis.
If you have listened to me speak for longer than 5 seconds about writers you know that I am a huge Warren Ellis mark. I have read nearly everything he has ever written, and I love it all. Ellis is best known for his work in comics, particularly his late 90’s series TRANSMETROPOLITAN, his work on IRON MAN (which was mined for IRON MAN 3 on which he received a writing credit) he wrote RED, which ended up a tongue-in-cheek action film featuring Dame Helen Mirren with a sniper rifle, his current reboot of DC’s Wildstorm universe, and a ton of other stuff. He’s written novels, delivered talks about futurism and technology at numerous conferences, including SXSW, and is a Visiting Professor to York St John University. So yeah. I’m into him.
Next, CASTLEVANIA was developed as an animated series. There is a certain freedom when working with animation that one doesn’t necessarily have when developing for live-action. Video games are essentially animated, albeit a much different style, but that visual style is more easily translated from one animated medium to another, as opposed to live-action. Whereas I would have loved to see a live-action CASTLEVANIA with a GAME OF THRONES budget, there is so much less at risk when dealing with animation. There are no sets, no seasons, no camera crew, no limitations of pesky physics, none of that stuff. There are other difficulties and costs associated with animation that a live-action show doesn’t have to deal with, but they are demonstrably less.
We have an established property with a distinct style in the hands of an incredibly talented writer and tasked him with developing an animated series. With those elements in place the formula is almost complete, but there is something else that allowed for the success of CASTLEVANIA. It was developed specifically for Netflix. There is no better place to try something as risky as a video game adaptation than a streaming media site. Netflix has been incredible at developing remarkable original series. Their first attempt was the critically successful HOUSE OF CARDS. With the aid of Marvel it gave us DAREDEVIL, JESSICA JONES, and LUKE CAGE. Don’t forget STRANGER THINGS. ORANGE IS THE NEW BLACK. LADY DYNAMITE. GLOW. All fantastic shows. It has also failed on occasion, of course, but the thing about Netflix is that they already have your money. They aren’t subservient to ratings or advertising, so they can easily absorb the occasional miss. Netflix also seems to give their creators more freedom to do as they please and give them less restriction on where their stories can go (though I don’t have any evidence of this other than just the content that they are producing, so I could be terribly wrong.)
So what am I talking about? It appears that there is limitless untapped potential in the video game world for great storytelling; it just hasn’t been done properly until now. You have to capture the tone and style of the game, while at the same time delivering a complex, interesting, original story within the confines of the established parameters of the game as well. Now that I say it out loud, it does sound rather difficult. But, CASTLEVANIA has proven that it can be done. So get to it. I desperately need a BIOSHOCK: INFINITE live-action series by 2019.