When it comes to adaptations of any kind, we as a culture have dramatically low expectations. I would say they border on “lower than a snake’s belly button” level of low. Why are they this low, well, over the decades we have had many reasons to be sceptical of any kind of adaptation. The most common adaptation is a book(s) to a movie: Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, His Dark Materials, Stephen King, Divergent Series, Hunger Games, American Gods, Moby Dick, Michael Crichton, The Count Of Monte Cristo, Gone With The Wind. I could go on and on and on. You may be wondering about the ones I chose to list because you could argue that some of those are good – and you’d be partially right. Even though they are deemed “good”, they still are well below the mark of a truly good adaptation (in my opinion). A truly good adaptation is one that remains truthful to the ideas and themes present and then translates the material to the new medium appropriately. The example I use to illustrate a truly masterful adaptation is “Coraline”, with the novel written by Neil Gaiman and the movie adapted by Henry Selick.
The novel is a wonderful, albeit very dark, children’s story about a little girl who is dissatisfied with her life and discovers an alternate world that is much more interesting but hides a dark, dangerous secret. Gaiman explores his world deftly without extraneous information. He very carefully and craftily presents the themes of fear and identity, two things that are incredibly common in children especially as they get older and more aware of the intricacies of society and their place within it. To adapt such a novel with such intricate characters and deep themes, one has to be a master translator. And that is exactly what Henry Selick did.
In Selick’s version of “Coraline”, you will find a new character, a very different garden sequence and many other differences. Some people would baulk and rant and rave about so many egregious discrepancies, and they are well within their right to do so. For myself, I actually can’t tell you which one I like better: the book or the movie because they both offer something beautiful, frightening and delightful to engage with. And this is what a true adaptation should do: take the material available and translate it in such a way that you get something new and alive; a fresh “reading” if you will, of something you enjoyed before.
Before I go on, I should add this: video game to movie adaptations are in general the most awful things that have ever been attempted; largely due to the fact that most video games have a wandering narrative (if they have one at all) with very little in the way of “themes”. Just look at the adaptations of “Street Fighter 2”, “Mortal Kombat”, “Super Mario Bros”, “Silent Hill”, “Double Dragon”, “Need For Speed”, “Wing Commander”, “Doom”, I mean the list is crazy! Have there been good adaptations? Well, I would argue no, there have been no truly good adaptations of video games. There are some movies based on video games that have been incredibly entertaining – “Warcraft”, “Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within”, “Tomb Raider”, and the Resident Evil series. However these adaptations aren’t, in my no-where-near humble opinion, good; entertaining is much different than good.
Now that you have an idea of what I am expecting when I hear that something has been “adapted”, let me put a stake through the heart of this new Castlevania “adaptation”.
I was looking forward to this new series from Netflix because I truly enjoyed the video game series back in the day. They were full of fun, inventive levels, awesome bad guys, difficult bosses. Probably the best part of the series was the production design. The sets, the characters, the atmosphere – these things came together to make a truly eerie and fun game. Could I tell you the storyline? Not really. I knew that the Belmont family was tasked with the difficult mission of destroying Dracula! And really, that’s all you need to know to enjoy the game (if you want, you can head to the Castlevania wikipedia page to learn more about the “plot”). So, when the first trailer was released for the Netflix series, I was very intrigued. It was full of mood, eerie music and enormous amounts of the colour red. It was just vague enough to hook you. And the way the trailer was structured and the moments it featured, it gave you the sense that something epic was on its way.
What a load!
Before I get into the negatives, maybe I’ll address the things that I liked. The first thing I’ll mention is the voice actors, specifically Richard Armitage as Trevor Belmont and Matt Frewer as the Bishop. Both of these men bring a depth to the character that is belied by the dialogue (which I will get to in a moment). All the voice actors are taxed with delivering sub par dialogue with as much truth as they are able. Some pull it off well and others, well, not so adequately. Finding truth in exchanges like this one,
BOSHA: More ale for me and my cousin Kob!
BOSHA: Look, we might have had the same father, but you came out of my aunt. Don’t make me get my shovel.
I know it’s supposed to be a joke, but the timing and dialogue don’t do anything for the story and are simply there for a very gross joke. But, before I get into the writing, let me say that in the fourth episode, there was a moment of true genius that was so much fun to watch.
Trevor Belmont and Sypha have fallen through a floor and they find themselves deep in the submerged catacombs of [redacted]. While they are falling and exploring, they do a lot of jumping around – barely making huge jumps, having to time a jump as a piece of the wall or floor is about to give way. All of those elements are drawn directly from the video game series, indeed from the very nature of most side-scrolling video games. If you can suspend your disbelief enough to get to episode 4 and you are a video game fan, I think you will be able to appreciate the joy that this scene evokes.
Now that I have shared with you what I enjoyed about the series, let me tackle a few of my misgivings (just the major ones, I promise).
First major misgiving – ONLY 4 EPISODES! At 23 minutes per episode that’s a total combined time of 92 minutes – the length of a full-length Disney animated feature. So, my first big question is: why do 4 episodes instead of a full-length feature? OR do what the amazing BBC series “Sherlock” does and make each episode the length of a feature film? Of course, you could go the other direction and make eight 12 minute episodes, like a web-series. But these are questions that I think will forever go unanswered. Four sitcom-length episodes simply do not make any sense.
Another huge misgiving, and this is probably my biggest one, is the story/script. Now, I’ve read some rave reviews of the series and so I have to wonder if Netflix has two different shows on its service – one for critics and one for the rest of us. The story, in reality, is an incredibly simple one – Trevor Belmont needs to destroy Dracula. But what Ellis does is make this haltingly convoluted.
He gives Dracula a reason for wanting to destroy humanity, which, in and of itself isn’t a horrible thing, but if you are going to do this, then at the very least do it well; don’t give the audience a couple minutes of “intellectual” masturbation and then skip ahead. The audience wants to see the humanity of Dracula and his wife. They want to be invested in Dracula’s sudden, but inevitable, turn. Also, it’s very possible to set up the characters through the years that pass so we have some sense of who we are going to run into and why. This step though isn’t necessary if you have deep characters who betray their histories as they engage in conversations with people and advance the plot. However, that’s not what we have here.
Trevor Belmont is the lead (apart from Dracula) and so you would think that his character would be more fully developed. Sadly, you’d be wrong. Trevor is a moody, depressed, roving, outcast aristocrat with, well, I was going to say with a chip on his shoulder, but you really don’t get that impression, he just seems depressed. He does come to life through his hatred of the Church and of Dracula, but even these jolts to life feel forced instead of resisted or even enjoyed.
Speaking of Trevor, let me begin to wrap up this post with probably my most petty misgiving: character design. In general, the characters are, well, they are what they are – North American versions of Anime characters. They are fairly stock characters with nothing fresh or even truly engaging about their design. My biggest little petty pet peeve is the lone strand of hair that always hangs in between his eyes (they do this with Sypha too – see below)! It just doesn’t work on any level. And the fact that it is there ALL THE TIME is just another example of where this adaptation fails. It fails big (story, dialogue) and it fails small (stupid lone strand of hair).
There are just so many missed opportunities within this first “season” that I can’t recommend this show to anyone. If you are going to watch it anyway, then just know that you have to sacrifice good taste and competent story-telling for lots of blood and a couple decent fight sequences, and really that is it. But that is what we expect and so we have reviewers who declaim their views on this series and don’t challenge it. I mean, really, what’s the point? We’re just going to get another adaptation of another series and then another and then another – let’s just shut our brains off and be hypnotised by the visuals divorced from good content.
Am I cynical? Yes.
Will I be proved wrong? Only by the odd movie.
Is our culture so focused on escapism that we are willing to sacrifice good storytelling? Yes yes yes.