Video Games and Film
The adolescent medium of video games and the world of cinema have always been uneasy bedfellows. Regardless of whether it’s a video game adaptation of a film or a film adaptation of a video game, very little (if anything) ever seems to work out between the two. The meetup is awkward, the date never goes too well, and even after taking things to their furthest extent, they don’t even bother to call each other afterwards. (Okay, maybe that analogy is a bit contrived, but I’m sure you get the point, dear reader.)
Adaptations are a long-running, common, and welcome practice in the filmic arts. In fact, many of cinema’s greatest achievements are adaptations of the literary sort (Jaws, The Godfather, Psycho, etc.). So why is it that the production of a video game adaptation is often too difficult to be worthwhile?
There are a few thoughts to be considered here. Firstly, the medium of the written word is a medium that has been developing for thousands of years prior to the invention of the camera, let alone the cinema. Even though film’s elder cousin, theater, has been around since ancient times, it finds its preservation in the written word. It is a common axiom among historians that the written word is absolutely essential to the preservation of any civilization as the foundational means of any form of communication–artistic and otherwise. Because of this, cinema translating the written word to the moving image was a task almost essential to the maturation of the medium. The same cannot be said with regard to the medium of interactive play.
Granted, interactive play has been around in various forms for so long that its precise age is about as indeterminable as that of music; but unlike cinema, theater, or literature, games are not an inherently narrative medium. I recall with vivid clarity reading an article about the limiting principles of game design during my days minoring in the subject. One of those principles was meant to establish that a game is distinct from a story in a very fundamental fashion. The major divide between games and stories that the article addressed is the issue of linearity.
A story is inherently linear. No matter how many times one goes through the story, and no matter how many times the protagonist struggles with making the right decision at the right time, we as viewers/readers/listeners know perfectly well that all the characters are going to make the same decisions at the same time and in the same order every time we encounter their tale. By contrast, since the natures and situations of games alter and react in accordance to the decisions of the player(s), games are inherently non-linear. The outcomes and decisions and events of a game will almost never be exactly the same more than once. Ergo, translating the non-linear format of the game into the linear format of the story presents an incredibly challenging and complicated task.
Another difficult rift between the game and the story is the matter of interactivity. Games are meant to be played rather than watched or read. They are the only narrative medium in which the “audience” is not merely audient, but participatory. A novel or a film remains whole in and of itself without a reader or a viewer, but a game without a player is, by definition, incomplete. Once the player’s decisions cease to take their toll, the player ceases to be an active agent and is instead relegated to being a passive observer. In fact, it is for this reason the very place of narrative in game design has been a point of contention ever since the medium’s inception. Even though game design as an officially-recognized art form has been around for about 30-40 years, experts, practitioners, and scholars of the medium still go back and forth about how best to deliver a narrative in a way that does not betray the nature of the relationship between player and game. There have been varying levels of success and failure in this regard throughout the history of video games, with the works of Japanese game designers Hidetaka Miyazaki and Yoko Taro being some of the most cited recent examples of triumph. Nevertheless, gaming narrative still remains largely an open issue.
With games and coherent stories having such an essentially contentious relationship, with there never having been to my mind even one example of a truly praiseworthy game adaptation in either film or television, with everything suggesting that any and all attempts at doing so are pretty much doomed to failure, one is faced with a rather daunting question:
Where did Castlevania go right???
For those unaware, the folks at Frederator Studios (the same think tank responsible for kid-friendly animated productions such The Fairly Oddparents, Adventure Time, and ChalkZone) have produced an animated series adaptation of the 1990 release Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse, the final entry in the long-running Castlevania game series to be released on the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES). The game tells the story of Trevor Belmont, the last surviving member of the publicly disgraced Belmont family of vampire hunters, who embarks on a quest commissioned by the church to face and defeat the notorious vampire, Vlad Dracula Ţepeş, who is wreaking death and chaos upon the people of Wallachia. Along the journey, Trevor meets Sypha Belnades, a magician of the church who hid her identity as a woman to pursue a career as a vampire hunter; Grant Danasty, a pirate with skills in stealth; and Adrian Ţepeş (a.k.a. Alucard), the dhampir son of Dracula himself who is determined to put a stop to his father’s thirst for bloodshed. The game was rather revolutionary at the time for many reasons, not the least of which being the feature of multiple endings, and is regarded as one of the greatest titles on the NES.
With the aid of famed English comic book writer Warren Ellis (Iron Man: Extremis, NextWave), Castlevania has been expanded upon and translated into a Netflix series currently consisting of only four half-hour-long episodes which features a tale of hellspawned savage genocide, complete with mass death, impalements, severed limbs and entrails strewn about in haphazard fashion, and blood raining from the sky. There is also sexually explicit dialogue shared among drunken peasants, and explorations of corruption within the Catholic Church in the late 15th Century.
Not for a moment is any of this done just for the vapid sake of shock value. Where the original game had little in the way of full narration due to the technical limits of home game consoles of the time, the work of Ellis and director Sam Deats gives us a living, breathing, fully-realized world beset with desperation, dystopic venality, and hopes of a better tomorrow. Where the characters in the original title had little more engaging depth than the pieces on a chess board (as most game characters of the time did), here we are given utterly human, three-dimensional entities with hopes and fears, reservations and passions, ambitions and virtues, empathy and scorn–everything that makes a character memorable, unique, and engaging. Amidst this evolution of the source material, never once does anything seem contrary to the spirit of either Curse of Dracula, in particular, or the Castlevania series in general.
British comedic video game journalist and commentator, Ben “Yahtzee” Croshaw, once satirically quipped that the way every Castlevania plot is conceived is by slapping the word “DRACULA” on a big white sheet of paper and brainstorming it out from there. Indeed, the series unapologetically finds its inspirational roots in the seminal work by Bram Stoker, going so far as to include his 1897 novel in the game series’ official timeline and making Quincey Morris a distant descendant of the Belmont family. As central to the plot of Castlevania that the Lord of Vampires has been, never has he been more fully realized and humanized than here (outside of the Lords of Shadow reboot series at least).
The series opens with an image of a field filled with the skeletal remains of impalement victims. It is widely believed that the character of Dracula is loosely based on the historical figure of Vlad the Impaler, so the imagery establishes the primacy of Dracula’s hold on the setting quite handsomely. In the midst of this landscape of horror is a young woman named Lisa, approaching fearlessly into Dracula’s domain, seeking advanced scientific knowledge to aid in her goal of becoming a doctor and armed with little more than a gingerly-held dagger. Dracula immediately presents himself, and Lisa tells him of her intentions with confidence. At first, the vampire lord is just as antagonistic towards her as he would be to any other human, fangs and claws bared and ready to take another victim. He teasingly asks what she offers in return for his knowledge, and she shoots back, “Perhaps I could help you relearn some manners.”
Immediately, an unorthodox relationship is established between Dracula and his would-be prey. Rather than being intimidated, Lisa is headstrong and insistent, challenging Dracula’s prejudices towards her species. She also makes it abundantly clear that her aim as a doctor is genuine and noble, seeking to actually heal people through the medical and chemical sciences rather than “cheating people with boiled nettles and entrails.” While Dracula is never frightened by Lisa, he is intrigued by her honest determination to do good both by other humans and hopefully by Dracula himself. (“Maybe I can teach you to like people again, or at least tolerate them, or stop putting them on sticks.”)
At the same time, Dracula is not completely convinced that Lisa’s aim will produce the good she seeks. Seemingly harboring centuries of misanthropic views, he thinks mankind far too superstitious and mired in fearful ignorance to welcome the knowledge he offers to Lisa with open arms. Lisa feels that with the proper instruction and tools, the people will be freed from their irrational apprehensions, leading full, healthy, and prosperous lives. Dracula concedes to give her way a chance. With an almost darkly comical transition, all of Lisa’s hopes and dreams are undone, with her being burned at the stake in a public square in her homeland as a witch.
It is at this point that a major development in character dynamics is made. While Lisa is being burnt alive, the bishop who arranged the affair asserts with cold confidence that he is meting out justice upon a woman who received gifts from Satan. I was immediately reminded of the Disney rendition of Count Frollo from The Hunchback of Notre Dame, who sees corruption everywhere except within. The ironic thing is that even though he is clearly meant to be a secondary villain in this tale, he is not too much off the mark in his judgement, since Lisa is intimately involved with Dracula after all.
Furthering the intensity of this religiously subversive soiree, Lisa is heard in her pain crying out to Dracula, beseeching he not take revenge on her killers (“Don’t hurt them! They don’t understand!”). Even without a legitimate cross or a crown of thorns, the parallel could not be more obvious (“Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do!”). Thankfully, Lisa is never carried by the story into a Messianic status, but this gives a galvanizing motive to Dracula rekindling his hatred of the human race.
It is shortly revealed that Dracula and Lisa married. Once Dracula learns what has been done to his wife, he displays at once both genuine human empathy and hellspawned malice in the same moment. Scottish actor Graham McTavish manages to infuse into arguably the most widely known and iconic embodiment of satanic evil in all of literature an intense and palpable human pathos without diminishing the significance of that evil for even a moment. If anything, he somehow strengthens it.
The effective handling of engaging villainy is absolutely essential to virtually any story, but this is especially so in Castlevania. It is a long-running and common axiom among creative writers that “your story is only as strong as your villain.” We see the truth of this axiom in countless tales of conflict between good and evil. Even in superhero narratives where the focus is supposedly on the titular heroes, all the actions that the heroes take are in response to whatever the villains are doing. Superman could live quite comfortably as mild-mannered Clark Kent if Lex Luthor just stuck to legitimate work. Also, the more formidable and powerful the villain, the stronger the story tends to be. Episodes of the rightly-venerated Batman: The Animated Series that featured lower-classed villains like the Penguin or Killer Croc are not nearly as compelling or satisfying as episodes that feature more threatening villains like Mr. Freeze or Ra’s al Ghul.
In Castlevania, we are given as a central focus two compelling villains on two different sides of the theological spectrum: one, a corrupt priest fully convinced that he is carrying out God’s will by eliminating anything that has even the most superficial relation to his idea of iconic evil; and the other the Lord of Vampires himself, eager to seek revenge on those who took the only human he ever loved from him. At first, oddly enough, I genuinely sympathized with Dracula’s side in this conflict, but once the beginning throes of his genocidal vengeance are initiated, with innocent men, women and children being disemboweled and torn asunder under a blood-red sky by pitiless devils, I was thrown back on my face onto the hard reality of just who the story was dealing with.
Thankfully, there are two key heroes in this narrative who provide solid moral opposition to both of these scoundrels and their villainous deeds.
With few exceptions, the central conflict to every Castlevania game is between Dracula and whoever is the current champion of the Belmont family of vampire hunters. Here, our champion is the last remaining survivor of the Belmont family: a world-weary, sullen hunter named Trevor. Played with substantial exasperation by Richard Armitage, Trevor seems like the typical, weather-worn war hero who’d rather just live out the rest of his days drowning his sorrows in booze and self-deprecation. And, admittedly, he mostly does.
Over the course of the opening sequence, we see the level of decimation that Trevor has to suffer thanks to how much the people of Wallachia feared his family’s strength and might. His home is burned down, his name is disgraced and scorned among the people, and he is left with nothing but an ugly and inescapable reputation for comfort. Because of this, Trevor understandably and predictably becomes quite disillusioned with the hero work that is signature to his coat of arms. Nevertheless, his righteous flame has not completely died out, as he holds a reverence for the proper order of things and revulsion to evil and corruption.
In fact, Trevor operates as a nobler reflection of what the church in the series is meant to be. Supposedly, they both are agents of God defending the populace from the forces of evil, but where the members of the church–most notably the Bishop of Gresit–simply adorn themselves visibly and verbally with fanciful emblems of virtue and godliness without ever really taking such principles to heart, Trevor carries himself as a broken man with some vestige of true godliness and virtue about him.
In some key ways Trevor’s character reminds me of Indiana Jones, and not only because of his family’s signature weapon, the famed Vampire Killer whip. Like Indy, Trevor has an explicit-but-tenuous relationship with the Divine. He has little to no love for priests or other men of the cloth, but neither he nor the story as a whole ever once regards God (or, as revealed in a key moment, even all priests) as the enemy–only those who erroneously claim to speak in His name. Of course, a man classically trained to hunt and kill vampires and demons can’t maintain that role for very long without anchoring himself to the Great I Am to some degree, and Trevor does still hold a notch of reverence and dependence on such resources.
…So much so, in fact, that he is not hesitant to teach what he knows in combating Dracula’s minions to the common folk who have not received the defenses from the church that they so desperately need. He’s not even afraid to put himself at deadly odds with corrupt priests and tell off the bishop in how he is misleading others and being horribly misled himself by his pride and self-righteousness. Where the villain of the church is concerned, Trevor makes for a fine foil, being not only a heroic opposition to a corrupt elite, but something of an example of what kind of servant that elite should be.
There are two major villainous forces at work in the Castlevania series. While the villain of the church is given proper heroic opposition in the form of Trevor Blemont, what immediate foil is given to the more iconic villain of Dracula? At first glance, the answer seems quite easy.
In both namesake and character, Dracula’s dhampir son, Alucard, is an opposite mirror reflection of Dracula. Once hearing of his mother’s murder, he both expresses his genuine grief at her unjust killing and his stalwart opposition to his father’s genocidal answer to said injustice. This lands him in the crosshairs of Dracula’s wrath, enduring a near fatal blow that forces him to rest for a year, recovering himself so as to be properly prepared to put an end to his father’s rampage. Indeed, while he is given very little in the way of actual screentime, Alucard is well-posed to be just as much of a foil to Dracula as Trevor is to the church.
The parallels between Trevor and Alucard do not end there. Like Trevor, Alucard is also victimized by his familial ties and lineage. He seeks to do the best he can within those boundaries, hoping one day to be free of them to some degree once his deed of heroism is complete. He even says explicitly at one point, “We are all, in the end, slaves to our family’s wishes.” To transcend mediums for a moment, both the Alucard of the most highly-celebrated entry in the Castlevania game series, Symphony of the Night, and the Trevor Belmont of the Netflix series echo the famous Edmund Burke quote at a key moment of personal resolution: “The only thing necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.”
Having said all that, the true manifestation of godly opposition to Dracula is found in his deceased wife, Lisa. As expounded upon before, within the first few minutes of the series, Lisa dies in a manner with explicit parallels to the death of our Lord. Her death is sacrificial, selfless, and met while carrying genuine concern for those who put her to her undeserved demise. It reflects the character she carries about herself while living and puts to use in order “tame” Dracula’s evil nature. She encourages him, “If you will love me as a man, then live as a man.” Lisa can be seen as the genuine Christian in this tale, purifying evil and illness through selfless acts of love. Alucard, in a way, willfully carries on her spirit by also opposing Dracula’s vampiric drive and defending humankind to the death. Even Trevor sarcastically addresses Alucard as a “floating vampire Jesus.”
It is fair to say that this duo of a shunned vampire hunter with little affinity for regular folk and the son of Dracula who is by nature beyond humanity in a manner of speaking, is a rather unfit team to save the earth from hellish destruction. But there is one other member of this band of rejected misfits who serves as a stand-in for the people being defended–one who carries no chip on the shoulder and acts as a reasonable mediator between the hunter and his usual prey; one who also manages to mitigate the hunter’s anti-social tendencies and fulfill the prey’s hopes for the human race.
Sypha Belnades and the Speakers
When arriving in the town of Gresit, Trevor rescues from clerical oppression a man who is the elder of a nomadic group of scholars known as the “Speakers.” The Speakers carry themselves as living records of history, preferring to memorize accounts of knowledge rather than inscribing them into a physical format. They operate selflessly with a will to help those in need wherever they are, and strongly encourage Trevor in rediscovering his call to defend those who can’t defend themselves. This encouragement is later manifested primarily in the form of Sypha Belnades, the granddaughter of the elder and a strong-willed scholar of elemental magic who puts herself into life-threatening situations against her grandfather’s wishes on a regular basis. She and the elder take great pains to encourage Trevor to remain in the city of Gresit to defend her people against the hell hordes that arrive on a nightly basis. At first, Trevor is dismissive of the elder’s words of wisdom, but once seeing firsthand how corrupt the religious leaders of Wallachia have become, he echoes the elder’s wisdom in a moment of resolve. The Speakers identify themselves as being for the people, providing help, knowledge, and hope where they can. In this way, they are much like Lisa in that they are wholly human in practice and essence, and live by their selfless love to all humanity.
Sypha joins Trevor in his quest to put an end to the presence of the night hordes, mainly out of faithful devotion to a Speaker’s story of a “sleeping soldier” resting beneath Gresit who would aid in the fight against Dracula once awakened. Sypha finds her faith in Trevor’s virtue, humanity’s reason, and the tales of her people tested numerous times, each time bringing her not to denounce her faith in such matters, but to understand such matters from another angle. Her dynamism makes her an engaging audience surrogate as well as a competent agent in times of conflict. Alejandra Reynoso provides Syhpa with a somewhat forced Eastern European accent which has rubbed some listeners the wrong way, but the performance remains just as strong and compelling as the others.
It would be a sin for me to delve into how the characters developed in the original game, potentially spoiling the tale for the uninitiated, so I’ll leave that aside. Suffice it to say, those lacking a sense of abstraction that would help them understand the narrative from the 8-bit NES game will find themselves greatly serviced by this excellent adaptation.
Conclusion and Summary
In all honesty, I’m rather surprised that those in the gaming community who are also major fans of the filmic arts are not making a bigger deal out of this series. This is the first critically-successful screen adaptation of a video game to ever be released–one that is not only good but genuinely great. In four short episodes, Castlevania accomplishes what countless other attempts at a respectable game adaptation have failed to do. In fact, the failures have been so consistent that many feel that such an achievement would never occur. And yet, here we are.
Granted, many were disappointed that the first season was so short, but if that’s the harshest criticism to give, then let it be so. The animation is crisp and lively, the environments are foreboding and authentic, the voice acting is compelling, the thematic dynamism is rich and engaging, the humor is dark and winsome, the characters are likeable and deep, and the promises of what’s to come are towering.