The history of video game adaptations in movies and television is littered with failure, from the now-infamous 1993 Super Mario Bros. film to the more recent Assassin’s Creed, which was praised in part for not being completely terrible. One surprising success story, though, has been Netflix’s new take on Castlevania, which transforms the gothic adventure game into a dark, violent, four-part series.
According to executive producer Adi Shankar, part of the reason the new series works is that it was made by a team that understands and respects the source material. “The games provide an amazing blueprint. You couldn’t ask for a better blueprint,” he told The Verge in a recent phone interview. “It’s about knowing what elements to focus on. It’s kind of like a musician who’s covering his or her favorite iconic song. You know what notes you have to hit, and you know what notes you should make your own.”
Castlevania debuted on Netflix on July 7th, and like the games it’s based on, it tells the story of the Belmont family and its multi-generational quest to fight off Dracula and the powers of evil. The animated series centers on Trevor Belmont, the last of his line. The Belmonts have been exiled by the church, and Trevor is living an aimless life where his only true goal is finding his next drink. But then he’s thrust back into the world of vampire hunting when Dracula returns to seek vengeance on humanity.
It’s a bloody, action-filled series, with the kind of colorfully obscene dialogue that fans should expect from the writer, comics legend Warren Ellis. It’s also a story that’s set to grow; Netflix has confirmed that another eight episodes are in the works, which Shankar describes as much more “expansive” than the initial batch.
It’s been a long road to creating the series, however. It actually began life in 2007, when Ellis was working on a direct-to-DVD animated film version of Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. In a production blog at the time, Ellis explained that the script went through eight revisions in order to satisfy Koji Igarashi, the longtime producer of the game series, though the project was eventually canceled. In 2012, Shankar was approached to work on a separate, live-action film based on the franchise, which he ultimately turned down due to concerns around the scope of the project.
A few years later, not long before Shankar released his unauthorized, gritty Power Rangers short film, he met with fellow Castlevania producer Kevin Kolde, and was introduced to Ellis’ iteration of the story. He briefly considered using Kickstarter to fund the series, but then Netflix came on board to produce. “We’ve all been circling Castlevania for a bit,” Shankar says. “You can effectively look at this as a different project.”
While Shankar has worked on films like Machine Gun Preacher and Lone Survivor, he’s no stranger to fan-driven works. He’s arguably best-known for his self-described “Bootleg Universe” of short films, which includes not only Power Rangers, but also stylized re-imaginings of some of his favorite characters, like the Punisher, Judge Dredd, and James Bond. Shankar’s passion as a fan is what drew him to Castlevania. “I guess it’s no secret that I’m a massive nerd or a massive gamer,” he says. “And I was really into Castlevania. It is a game and a mythology and a world that I know a lot about. It’s a universe that I knew and had dissected in my own mind, just as a fan.”
The Netflix version of Castlevania differs from the games in some respects, most notably shifting from a comparatively lighthearted, pulpy take on gothic horror to one that’s much more gruesome, with a Game of Thrones level of blood and gore. But the show also captures the games’ essence in a way few previous adaptations have. It keeps the parts that work well — namely the deep, complex history and the gothic sense of style — and expands upon areas that are less of a focal point of the games, like the characters and narrative.
Shankar is hoping to continue this trend of carefully considered video game adaptations, not only with the next wave of Castlevania, but also an upcoming animated series based on Assassin’s Creed. Today, the bar for these productions is still pretty low. But Castlevania appears to be a step in the right direction, which is good news for a fan like Shankar. “There are so many great [games],” he says of the potential to work on more adaptations, “and there are so many great stories.”