It's beyond difficult to make a successful adaptation of a video game. Box office bombs such as Warcraft, Double Dragon, Max Payne, Street Fighter, Rampage, Doom, Assassin's Creed and the infamously awful 1993 Super Mario Brothers are just a few that come to mind. With the debut of Castlevania on Netflix last year, series co-producer and writer Warren Ellis (Astonishing X-Men, Iron Man: Extremis, Transmetropolitan, The Authority) has bucked that trend, creating one of the best anime series in recent memory.
Through Ellis' exquisite storytelling, Castlevania shines thanks to the blurred lines between good and evil. Ellis' nuanced approach doesn't just paint Vlad Dracula Tepes as a monster waiting in the shadows, but as someone who has suffered real loss, sparking his thirst for death and revenge. Equally important is Ellis' portrayal of the Church, whose corrupt leaders cling to superstitions as they falsely accuse Dracula's wife of witchcraft before burning her at the stake. At the center, Trevor Belmont serves as the reluctant hero, feared by townsfolk for his super-human powers and perceived link to dark forces.
SYFY WIRE spoke with Ellis in the wake of Castlevania Season 2 about the long journey to create the series, why it's OK to like Dracula and how he crafted the series' emotional, dramatic conclusion.
"[Feeling empathy for Dracula] was very important for me," Ellis told SYFY WIRE. "Nobody is the villain of their own story, after all. And I think the best villains are tragic — it's their response to loss that reveals who they are. It makes them more real, and that's what I wanted for Dracula."
FROM NINTENDO TO NETFLIX
Netflix's Castlevania is loosely based on the third iteration of the popular video game series of the same name. 1989's Castlevania III is actually a prequel to Konami's original for the Nintendo Entertainment System, which was released in 1986. In the game, Trevor Belmont returns from exile to his home of Wallachia, Romania, to fight Dracula's dark army of monsters with the help of young sorceress Sypha Belnades, pirate Grant Danasty, and Dracula's son, a dhampir (half-vampire, half-human) named Alucard.
Ellis says he was first approached to work on a Castlevania animated movie in 2007 and wrote a script, but the project fell apart. Ellis never played any of the Castlevania video games, so when he was first approached about working on the project, he did what he usually does and hit the internet to read as much as he could about the property.
"What I found were the parallels between it and the Hammer horror movies I grew up with, many of which were set in eastern Europe, often in times long past, and usually featuring vampires," Ellis says. "And that was a thing I knew well, and was interested in finding my own take on."
A decade later, Kevin Kolde of Samurai Jack and Adventure Time fame called Ellis and said he'd sold Castlevania to Netflix as a four-episode serial. "[He] asked if I'd be prepared to rewrite the original film script to fit," Ellis says. "To which my first response was, 'Who are you and how did you get my number?' I mean, it'd been ten years. I'd forgotten all about it."
Ellis says he suspects the media landscape needed a decade to change enough to accommodate an animated, swear-heavy medieval horror fantasy. With the story back on the table, he cut the original script into four parts, "chopped off some bits that didn't fit, fiddled with other bits," and filled the four-episode order.
SEASON 2'S SLOW BURN
After the success of Castlevania's Season 1, Ellis says he was left in the "interesting position of having absolutely no idea what to do."
"I knew I had to find a conclusion, and that I wanted to find ways to enrich the backdrop, which meant adding new characters," he says. "The season quickly became a little too dense for my own good. I remember Kevin telling me to stop after the third episode, and sending the scripts over to Netflix, who called to offer me a doubling of the episode order."
With the extended order, Ellis says he had the room to open it up, slow down the pacing, and explore these characters and their world.
"[I was able to] build in as much nuance as I could and give as much space as possible to let my actors work," he says. "Also, it let director Sam Deats and his world-class crew at Powerhouse Animation really show their ranges as artists. Ted Biaselli and Larry Tanz, my Netflix partners, have been an absolute dream to work with, by the way — nothing but creative support from start to finish."
In the show, Ellis allows Trevor Belmont (Richard Armitage), Alucard (James Callis), Sypha Belnades (Alejandra Reynoso), and Dracula (Graham MacTavish) the room to develop in their own right as the medieval horror story slowly unfolds.
"I was so lucky to get everyone I wanted, and to be able to hold on to Richard, Alejandra, James, and Graham," Ellis says. "They all did wonders with the script... and they always just make me better. Fantastic people. And they all love to experiment and try things."
Ellis says one memorable moment with Carmilla, a general in Dracula's army, stood out in particular.
"That bit where Jaime Murray [who plays Carmilla] starts giggling as she beats up another character is just the wrongest, creepiest, funniest thing," he says. "Ade (Adetokumboh McCormack) as Isaac is just so cool and so cold, Theo James [who plays Devil Forgemaster Hector] finds that odd little-boy fragility so well, Peter Stormare [who played Godbrand] is just a force of nature. Half the crew just fell apart when Graham and James did their big scenes towards the end of the season."
Equally important, Ellis says, was Trevor Morris' score, a mix of classical screen music, early music (comprised of Medieval and Renaissance music) and experimental influences.
"I think what he does for us is crucial — going from immense scale to eerie strangeness," he said. "It's not often you can talk to someone about ancient musical instruments and German electronic music from the 1970s. That incredible breadth of musical knowledge and skill he has makes our score pretty unique."
After rewatching Season 1 and wading through Season 2 of Castlevania, SYFY WIRE has assembled a few of our favorite moments from the series. Even though there are too many to count, we focused on moments that illustrate Ellis' expert storytelling as he gave life to one of the original video game smash hits.
If you haven't seen the entire series, please note, spoilers lie ahead.
DRACULA IN LOVE
In the opening scene of Castlevania, Ellis turns the legend of Dracula on its head, making Dracula relatable. Having moved away from his penchant for death, Dracula has become more or less a hermit, having sworn off humanity as it clings to superstitions pushed by the church.
Searching for knowledge, Dracula's love interest Lisa wants to work toward a more civilized world and explains to Dracula that not all humans are superstitious peasants. She reasons with Dracula, saying humans could be made better with the help of medicine and science.
"They won't be peasants if you teach them, they won't live short, scared lives if you give them medicine," she says. "We can make the world better. Start with me and I'll start with you."
The result is that we're left with hope and even empathy for Vlad Tepes.
DRACULA GOES H.A.M.
One year after his wife is burned at the stake for witchcraft, Dracula returns to deliver on a promise that Wallachia will pay for her death.
As the town of Targoviste gathers for a speech by the Archbishop, Dracula manifests the return of his castle amid a tornado of fire, blood raining from the sky and death to all who stand by.
"I gave you one year, and now I bring your death," he says. "You had your chance."
As fire-breathing winged monsters pour out of his castle, no one is spared.
"Kill everything you see, once Targoviste is made into graveyard spread into the country," Dracula says. "Go now and kill, kill for my love and this lifetime of hate before me."
TREVOR STANDS UP
When Trevor Belmont arrives in the ruined town of Gresit, he's still drunk from the night before. Walking through the town, he comes across two men of the cloth as they corner a local speaker who they threaten with death. Only concerned with finding food and drink, Trevor is faced with a choice to keep to himself or confront the two. He reluctantly intervenes, snapping away the priest's staff and, in the process, the man's finger.
"Look I don't like priests at the best of times, I mean I really, really don't like priests," he warns. "So if you leave now we'll say no more about it."
When the men instead brandish arms, Belmont defends himself, leaving the two hurt but alive.
The moment speaks to Belmont's good soul. Even while being threatened with death by the corrupt men of the Church, he's still hesitant to hurt them.
With that simple scene, we're given insight into what kind of man Trevor truly is. Standing up against the church again at the end of the episode, Trevor owns up to his family's legacy, protecting the mysterious speakers against a horde of priests and a mob of townsfolk.
THE KISS OF DEATH
There is no more satisfying moment in the first season of Castlevania than the death of the Bishop. In addition to being misguided, corrupt and twisted, he serves as the catalyst for Dracula's return, burning Lisa Tepes at the stake.
When Dracula's horde finally overruns the city of Gresit, he is left alone at the mercy of a fearsome, six-eyed beast. Still stuck to his belief that he is a man acting in God's name, he is quickly brought into the reality of the situation by the monster.
"No wonder he has abandoned you," the demon tells him. "But we love you. We couldn't be here without you. Let me kiss you."
DEVIL FORGEMASTER HECTOR AT WORK
Dracula's general and chief reincarnation expert Hector (Theo James) is one of the best new characters of Season 2 — not only for his lovable zombie dog Cesar but because from the outset, he's conflicted about his role in Dracula's war, struggling with his humanity.
As the Devil Forgemaster works to convert the dead of Gresit, Ellis' juxtaposition of warlord Godbrand's (Peter Stormare) call for order only highlights Hector's strange role in Dracula's war.
We're given another look at Hector in Episode 7 as he flashes back to his first resurrection of the family dog only highlighting his inability to relate to vampire or humans. Ellis' play on the duality of the so-called bad guys, leaves the viewer feeling like Hector simply didn't get a fair shake when he was young.
CARMILLA'S CUNNING PLAN
When she makes her debut in Episode 3, we're given a clear look at the cunning and conniving Carmila as she explains her plan to unseat Dracula. With a simple question regarding Dracula's hesitation to turn his wife into a vampire, she quickly undercuts his authority in front of his generals at the start of her story. But we don't really see why until the end of the episode when she reveals why to Godbrand.
It's part of Ellis' continued push to present the cause and effect of abuse, whether it's the church or, in Camilla's case, her former master.
"I was turned centuries ago by a vampire master who said he was giving me the world," she tells Godbrand. "But in time, he grew old and cruel and mad. I was bound to him. Until I decided to take back my world."
INSIDE DRACULA'S MIND
Speaking of plans to further the war against the humans, Dracula and Issac share a moment in which the dark lord recounts his former love for carnage. Flashing back to when the merchants of Kronstadt disrespected him, we're given a look at a Dracula we haven't seen yet.
"I used to relish in the details of death," he tells Isaac.
During the raid of the town, we see Dracula enjoying himself for the first time since the first episode when he met his wife. Setting fires to draw out the townspeople, Vlad delights in the blood and death as the humans put up a futile fight. As the women and children return to the burning town, they're horrified to see the men staked along the ridge of their now-destroyed home.
"Those times are long gone," he says, exasperated.
With this quick interlude, Ellis provides a stark contrast to the bloodthirsty monster Dracula once was and the tired, old, depressed version of Vlad Tepes he's become.
ALUCARD VS. DRACULA
Ellis knew he was asking the Castlevania animators for the moon when he first scripted the final fight between Trevor, Sypha, Alucard, and Dracula. To the team's credit, they delivered and more with one of the best fight scenes in recent anime history.
In addition to the heavy action, the fight ends in a spectacularly impassioned conclusion when Dracula and Alucard end up in the latter's former childhood room. It's the perfect ending for the series, as Dracula finally remembers what it was like to love and be a part of a real family.