Successful transitions from the video game medium to movies or television have been few. Having been burned by this ineffable truth so many times before, my conditioned response to hearing there was a Castlevania series coming out on Netflix was to shudder and look away. The game and its sequels feature a centuries-spanning conflict between a dynasty of well-armed monster hunters and the evil forces of Dracula. (For a very accessible history of the franchise—as well as one of the purest expressions of human joy I have ever borne witness to—I recommend this podcast episode.) Having played many of the games several times, especially the triumphant Symphony of the Night, I was prepared to completely ignore what was sure to be a pale mockery of the series: a cobbled-together TV show in vaguely anime style would only disappoint.
So, here’s the odd thing about it: the Netflix series is actually really good.
For such a short show—the first season is only four episodes long, with eight episodes in the second, most recent season—it covers a lot of ground. After some unfortunate bestiality/incest barroom talk in the first episode meant to show us how rough the locals are, the show’s scope widens quickly. Vampires gather in Dracula’s castle, but soon split into factions as they argue behind his back (er, cloak?) about how to handle the old man’s latest controversial decision as they wage war on humanity; there are whispers among the vampire generals that their leader has become unhinged, broken by his grief over the loss of his wife (a human destroyed by less enlightened humans.).
Two of the big D’s powerful human minions are manipulated by characters several centuries their senior. There are plays for power, threats made, alliances and promises broken. And all of this fun internecine vampire political maneuvering takes place as the requisite band of unlikely heroes assembles to eventually stand as humanity’s best hope, with the appropriate amount of derring-do, mutual distrust, and plenty of snark along the way. This animated series has successfully taken the elements of an old game about grimly whipping one’s way through one’s problems and revealed the narrative potential hidden beneath.
The creators of this show, which is written by author/comic book writer/screenwriter Warren Ellis, negotiated the dangerous waters of moving an IP from one medium to another very well by focusing on the deeper thematic elements of the story and eschewing coy winks to the fanboy population.
As I watched (“devoured” might be a better word) the show, the way it felt like the Castlevania games I’d loved as a kid struck me more than anything else. For example, a majority of the characters’ time is spent in massive indoor locations: an unexplored catacomb beneath the beseiged town, a vast underground library filled with arcane knowledge, etc. These feel like levels in the old games. When compared to the nasty, brutish glimpses of common human life in the show, these locations are imbued with a sense of unknowable history, grandeur, and arcane powers long forgotten. The people of old were mighty indeed—and one of them is a vampire who’s now bent on destroying the human race.
This isn’t to say there is nothing for die-hard fans of the video games beyond the familiar characters and basic storyline. Subtle references abound, from a Bone Dragon skeleton hanging as a trophy in the Belmont home to the undependable rumors and gossip of the townsfolk à la Simon’s Quest. The majority of the key players are characters drawn directly from the games, but are presented here with more depth and nuance than we have seen before. For a lifelong fan, it feels like the thin-but-tantalizing threads of story are finally getting their proper due.
One new addition to the world bears mentioning, however: The Speakers. They are presented as a nomadic society of scholars ostensibly intent on helping the meek and powerless, but are in fact fiercely dedicated to the preservation of all human stories—and thus all human knowledge. As it plays out in the show, you would be hard-pressed to find better backstory for a hero who wields lost magic in a world filled with superstition and fear.
A throwaway line in the second season adds further complexity to the Speakers’ story. As our trio of protagonists spends hours rifling through archives hoping to find a solution to the mess they’ve found themselves in, Sypha, the Speaker, comes across a text written in a language “based on Adamical structures.” In an exchange with her ally, Alucard, she offers the following fascinating piece of information:
Sypha: “Adamic is the original human language, the one spoken by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The one that was split into all other languages at the Tower of Babel by God to prevent human cooperation.”
Alucard: “Is that…how you understand that story?”
Sypha: “Oh yes. The Speakers are the enemy of God. We live in cooperation and hide our stories inside ourselves so he cannot strike them down in jealousy.”
So, never mind the unholy half-vampire in the room—it’s the person who has spent her life up to this point living in poverty and humbly serving humanity that sees herself as God’s enemy. In a story that’s largely about fighting demons with holy weapons, this authorial choice folds in some very enjoyable depth and complexity…
It’s not every action-heavy animated TV show that dares to stretch a library research scene across multiple episodes, complete with discussions on the proper organization of books and allusions to debates in Biblical scholarship. The matter of capital-S Story is central, here, making up much of the meat of this version of Castlevania. In this show (which will continue in Season 3), every rumor has multiple variations, and the truth is elusive even when presented onscreen. The stories it’s telling are well worth your time.
Alex Livingston lives in an old house with his brilliant wife and a pile of aged video game systems. He writes speculative and interactive fiction, most recently the cyberpunk novella Glitch Rain. He’s on Twitter as @galaxyalex.