As far as video game adaptations go, Castlevania is certainly one of the best. In fact, the television show, which just premiered its first four episodes on Netflix, could serve as a starting point for future creatives tasked with adapting interactive entertainment into a passive, scripted program.
The series is a partial retelling of the 1990 Nintendo Entertainment System game, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse. The game itself features the rather minimal narrative of a vampire hunter, Trevor Belmont, traveling to defeat Dracula and prevent his demonic armies from destroying 15th century Europe. Along the way, he meets three allies: a sorceress Sypha, the pirate Grant, and Dracula’s son Alucard.
It’s a thin, yet sturdy skeleton, one that the show’s creators fill with new ideas, and also story elements from later Castlevania games. There is a care taken that clearly shows those involved have an understanding not just of the franchise’s Wikipedia synopsis, but of the more abstract ideas and feelings that have made it so appealing.
Where the show falters isn’t in the ideas themselves, but how they are executed.
For instance the show spends the first episode making Dracula into sympathetic character as opposed to cartoonish villain with no real motivation beyond an unjustified drive to be evil. And yet, the cartoonish villain role still materializes, when it becomes apparent that the season’s true antagonist is the Church.
The clergy not only invoke Dracula’s wrath by burning his wife to death as a witch, but then spend the next three episodes actively impeding anyone who might stop Dracula — for no other reason a vague notion of controlling the masses. The show excels when it adds complexity and depth to its characters; hopefully these villains will get that level of attention in future episodes.
This fluctuation between bland tropes and creative risks is present throughout the show. It sometimes presents a potentially interesting idea or situation, only to struggle to justify the internal logic holding the scene together. Characters’ goals can turn with little more incentive than a twist of dialogue. Trevor is a selfish man and reluctant hero weighed down by his family’s legacy, at least until an old man tells him enough times that he needs to protect people from Dracula’s demons.
The show is also full of people getting brutally dismembered, bleeding and vomiting. It never justifies these graphic depictions the way a show like Game of Thrones might use a viscerally violent scene to create a sense of danger. Instead, the violence feels intentionally flashy and sleek.
Castlevania is ripe with potential, but also burdened with cliches. And so, it feels after four episodes like a show at a crossroads. Will it become just another tortured video game adaptation? Or will it rise to be something more?