The Dark Knight-esque opening two measures of theme song for this Castlevania show is more than over-compensation for a lack of epic drama. It’s a kind of pitiful rabble rousing for a pseudo-anime attempt to do … well I’m not too sure, really. What is Castlevania trying to do?
Forgive my change of mood but I’m over the half-way mark now. I’ll pardon a slow setup if it froths up the action, but Castlevania asks me to get excited preemptively, when it trounces around those heavy-browed beats over its own blatant title like chocolate sprinkles over a macchiato someone else drank already by the time it got to me. Four episodes is paltry enough for a show that tastes or smells of Castlevania, but it doesn’t look like we’ll get closer than a thematic arm’s length. A name drop. A whip.
See it’s the obsession with Symphony of the Night that got this started down the wrong path. Initially I thought that the debonair Dracula might be interesting, but without a connection to the protagonist I don’t see how it could be. The gothic melodrama injected into the art design of Symphony bled out the comedy from a paling franchise, and brought it back to life as more overdramatic — a community theater retelling of Dracula. This isn’t wrong – Symphony is a triumph. But not of story.
The Castlevania show picks up too much of the dressing from Symphony and none of the form. It adapts the dialogue, but there is essentially no corollary to the gameplay. Trevor Belmont fights some priests – in episode three he even battles a cyclops – but it’s not evocative of any experience I’ve ever had with the source material.
(I remember the cyclops from Castlevania III, but even in that decision the show seems reluctant to refer or translate its game. The cyclops is not potently related to the series, and if the object was to turn the young Seeker into stone, a Medusa would have done just fine.)
The village people too play no real role in translation. Belmont asks villagers for information and they explain the show to him. But if it were like the game, Belmont wouldn’t be so lucky (they’d say things like, “Hit Deborah cliff with your head to make a hole”). That was a lonesome adventure in Castlevania II, in an environment made inhospitable by obscurity and danger.
The disparity between dying in Castlevania and watching Trevor’s flawless badassery in the show unveils a glitch in the system of video game adaptations as a whole.
When a game has a clearly defined, strong protagonist, your occupation of them (as opposed to a game in which you create, and so inhabit, your own avatar) is a responsibility. When Simon Belmont dies, it isn’t because he’s incompetent, but because you didn’t live up to him. You let him down.
But the show has to be constructed around our idea of a badass, and not every novice player’s inadequate occupation of him. Otherwise, he just wouldn’t be a Belmont. This means that the creative team’s singular problem in adapting this property was not to introduce emotion into Dracula or to define the religious corruption of a made-up country, but to create a situation in which the hero’s journey had motivation, in the absence of weakness.
By making Trevor a reformed layabout, the resolution comes too quickly. His redemption isn’t derived from his quest. We haven’t even been on one. “What do you expect to achieve against us?” a priest snarls. Trevor replies, “Absolutely nothing.” Was this how the scriptwriters felt as well?
Imagine an alternative. The show opens with an adventurer out of his depth in a magic castle, filled with monsters and shifting stairs, traps and treasures. We learn his temperament by the way he makes a bonfire and watches for dangers in the rafters and down the halls. The castle is so labyrinthine that there’s even an economy in the interior: lonely, guarded shopkeepers scraping a living off doomed adventurers seeking glory. Crazed men of God who curse the wicked place and those who invoke the terror within. Clans of hunters hoping to end the madness and achieve glory.
I’m not just talking about throwing a castle in there – I’m talking about making something of all that, an interesting, gloomy dystopia filled with self-deprecating humor, quiet horror, Castlevania monsters, and a protagonist who is mystifying but not crude. There could be lore on the walls and in tableaus of dead bodies and the placement of monsters, just as there is in the atmosphere of its source material.
My point is that this show has a plot but no story. I don’t need an exact adaptation of the game, but I need an interpretation of it driven by its history. Dark Souls is quite a lot like Castlevania II in that way, amped up in cinema but essentially the same. The horror is in the obscurity of its goals and the alienation of its humanity. The action is in the exploration of forgotten lands. The story is in exploring the ruins of old economies, and the new human ecosystems built on their bones.
This show just isn’t driven by mystery, hidden or otherwise. It has comedy unmotivated by irony and action untainted by horror. It’s gory in picture, but it’s clean in essence. Habitual sass clashes with presumptions of horror. The result so far? Absolutely nothing.