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Warren Ellis on the Tender Vision of Dracula’s Curse in Netflix’s ‘Castlevania’

Netflix’s animated adaptation of “Castlevania” is pure bloody brilliance, distilled into two seasons with just twelve episodes. It’s beautifully animated, brimming with stylish homage to the video game series, and it revels in the violent showdowns depicted between humans and demons.

It’s also one of the most emotional and vulnerable depictions of familiar characters like Trevor Belmont and Alucard – and, yes, Dracula himself. The gruesome dirge, where an army of vampire and demon soldiers routinely eviscerate humans with gleeful fervor in the name of Dracula’s sorrow-fueled vendetta against the entire race, is oddly hopeful and tender. For what feels like the first time in the history of “Castlevania,” you want to root for the lord of all vampires. They took his love away, you see, and so the whole of humanity must pay.

The series, which critics have extolled as one of the best video game adaptations of all time, is a partial retelling and reboot of the 1990 NES title “Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse.” It centers around vampire hunter Trevor Belmont, the last descendant of the Belmont family, exiled from modern society due to rumors that claimed the family practiced black magic, leading to their excommunication by the Church. On Trevor’s quest to defeat Vlad Dracula Tepes, known to most simply as Dracula, he meets two allies who become integral to his quest: the sorceress Sypha and the son of Dracula himself, Alucard.

It could have been a simple narrative borne from the original games’ lore, sprinkled with sleek choreography and exciting battles between humanity and their vampiric nemeses – but the various personalities working on the show saw something more in the adaptation, they told Variety during a set of interviews. The show eventually came together after a painfully long development time that nearly saw it languish in obscurity.

It took 11 years to bring the whole of “Castlevania” to fruition, in fact. In 2007, Seibert’s Frederator Studios purchased the rights to produce what was originally meant to be a television production, spurred on by Frederator’s Kevin Kolde. Kolde made it a point to Seibert that there were a number of video game IPs he had his eye on that he was interested in pursuing, including one especially that wasn’t “typical” for Frederator’s lighthearted portfolio.

“I know it doesn’t fit the mold of Frederator, but if it’s important to you, it’s important to me,” Seibert later recalled telling Kolde, of the “Castlevania” franchise that had been proposed as the studio’s next project.

Much of the show’s appeal doesn’t stem from its blitz of violence or even its adherence to the games, however. It lies instead within the tragic love story at the center of it all: the death of Dracula’s human wife, Lisa Tepes.

Lisa was a human woman interested in learning more about science, particularly the science behind medicine. She comes to Dracula’s castle seeking to drink from his ever-flowing fountain of knowledge of such things, including access to his massive library where she could freely research topics of her own volition. We learn all about the inquisitive young woman and her stubbornness, her willingness to remain with Dracula to learn more about her craft, no matter the cost.

So it’s no surprise to see the two become lovers, entwined in unholy matrimony as immortal being and his human companion, spawning a dhampir son in the form of Adrian “Alucard” Fahrenheit Tepes. Gradually, Dracula opens his heart to share his gift of knowledge with the world, and Lisa does the same. Though he isn’t fond of humans, Lisa cajoles him into accepting them, as they’re her people, after all.

Twenty years after their marriage, Lisa is seen working as a doctor for a village where she dispenses medicine that the villagers haven’t seen before, such as penicillin. Corrupt church elders catch wind of it, however, and swiftly accuse her of witchcraft. She’s burned at the stake with no investigation and no way for Dracula to step in and stop it. It’s terrifying for viewers, but a disturbing scene that perfectly illustrates the Bishop’s evil at his core, as well as the malevolence in the followers who obey his every word. It was a pivotal moment and turning point for the show, one that had to be approached with caution.

“If that wasn’t right, her death was going to have less weight,” director Adam Deats told Variety of Lisa’s harrowing murder at the hands of the clergy. “It was as subtle as making sure the animation and acting was as good as possible.”

Lisa’s death breaks Dracula, eradicating any shred of compassion or care he had begun to feel for humanity, despite her repeated urges for him to. And so “Castlevania,” as bleak as it is, begins to weave a tender, emotional world where we not only root for Dracula, but can empathize with his pain through and through, even before considering the terrible acts he’s committed.

“By giving Dracula the human dimension that he really has to have to make the story sustainable, you have to find the human element in him,” said Frederator Studios founder and executive producer Fred Seibert of the character. “Nobody is ultimately all bad. Once you know someone is bad, why spend your time with them? All of our time is precious. Committing to a film where characters are unlikeable – what’s the point?”

Viewers are typically introduced to Dracula as a blood-sucking stereotype, a megalomaniacal villain whose only hobbies and goals including wreaking havoc on humanity and drinking blood. This new vision of “Castlevania” makes him just as easy to relate to as the rest of the cast, which is a testament to the strong writing by Warren Ellis of “Transmetropolitan” fame.

“I think Warren has an instinct for creating that human dimension for a character that makes you want to spend time with them even if what they ultimately do is not something that you’re supportive of,” said Seibert, which is quite obvious here – Dracula commands his armies to kill every human on sight, terrorizing them nightly to punish the entire race for the actions of a select few, murdering women and children in the process.

With Dracula’s crusade to eliminate the whole of humanity, shades of the character’s villainous history do indeed shine through. But we’re also shown the immense pain and immeasurable bleakness that he must feel, knowing he’s doomed to an eternity without, quite possibly, the only one he’s ever loved at his side.

Dracula isn’t the only character whose plight for which we feel. Trevor Belmont is a worldly soul who appears to have grown weary of the burden his famous family’s name has placed upon him, walking the world alone. The stoic Alucard himself is torn between saving humanity from Dracula’s murderous intent and the idea that, no matter what happens, he’ll still love his father – all complex emotions and ideas not unlike the ones we grapple with in our daily lives. They all share a common, yearning sort of pain that tears through your heart and lingers with you long after the credits have rolled.

But it isn’t the sadness alone that lends a malleable, relatable tone to the show. Much of what it accomplishes couldn’t be possible without the unique balance of serious storytelling and occasional horrific imagery juxtaposed with brief moments of humor. One moment the heroes fear for their lives, and the next Alucard and Trevor are squabbling like children, helping to break up the tension and let some light in.

“Jokes and horror work on the same mechanism,” said writer Ellis. “Tension and release. For me, it’s more of an instinct for what a scene needs, and listening to the characters speak. I’m not sure our beleaguered director, Sam Deats, ever expected to be setting up and knocking down so many gags, but it does illustrate his incredible versatility in going from my dumb jokes to the horror content so seamlessly.”

The same sadness that permeates Dracula and the loss of his wife is replaced with snark and humorous moments woven throughout the show and further transforms what could have been a simple gorefest into one with people you want to see more of, plain and simple.

“No matter what it is that I watch, I want to live with [some] characters. Even when I’ve gotten bored with a show, the characters are meaningful to me,” Seibert said of building an empathetic cast when it comes to movies and television. “I think Warren has an instinct for creating that human dimension for a character that makes you want to spend time with them even if what they ultimately do is not something that you’re supportive of.”

With this line of thinking in mind, one wonders if giving Dracula a more emotionally vulnerable persona was something that came about in the middle of production or if it was a simple byproduct of the narrative as a whole. The decision, writer Ellis said, was always an intentional one.

“Sometimes we can be defined by how we respond to tragedy, and by the choices that we make,” Ellis said. “By one metric, we decide who’s the villain by how far they’re prepared to go to get what they want. I wanted every major character to have an inner life that was at least comprehensible to me. Even the mad bishop so beautifully done for us by Matt Frewer could at least be understood. I think making Dracula relatable makes for a better, richer story. I’m not sure I ever thought about doing it in any other way.”

Perhaps the most impressive feat about the entirety of the project is that much of its core staff had never even played any of the “Castlevania” games before tackling the project. Series co-producer and writer Warren Ellis noted that in putting together a story that would appeal to a general audience beyond those who play the games regularly, he was, in fact, the general audience. “My dirty secret is that I never played the video game, and had actually never heard of it previous to being approached about adapting it,” said Ellis.

With the help of Konami’s creative team as well as direction executive producer Kevin Kolde (and a bevy of fan pages and Wikipedia, according to the writer himself) Ellis was able to deftly weave together an excellent adaptation out of a “rich field of concepts.” Indeed, “Castlevania” is still very much rife with new characters to introduce and ideas to explore, though it’s not clear just yet if future episodes will follow the same path the earlier ones did. Fans will surmise a romance between Trevor and traveling companion Sypha is in the cards, which naturally progresses in the games – that is, if the animated series follows the same storyline.

As far as what fans can expect from the third “Castlevania” season, there wasn’t much the team could share, but with Carmilla’s reign of terror just beginning, there’s plenty of reason to branch out.

“Isaac’s in North Africa making monsters. A lot of dead vampire generals means some places are now in chaos. And Trevor and Sypha are wandering Wallachia and probably ruining everything they touch,” Ellis reminded us of the current state of the “Castlevania” narrative post-season two. A ten-episode third season has already been greenlit by Netflix, so there’s much more to come.

“In the third season, we can really widen out and tell several stories at once. I have the space to change the tone of the show a little bit from season to season, and Netflix is always very supportive of whatever I want to try,” Ellis said of the next group of episodes to come, noting that it will be more “novelistic” in approach.

With “Castlevania’s” success now firmly cemented in the annals of video game adaptation history, it seems that Ellis may have found an unexpected niche. When it comes to adapting video games, though, does he think he might tackle another adaptation project?

“Probably not,” Ellis said. “I do want to do more work in the adult-oriented animation field. I feel like I’m just now scratching the surface of what I can do there, but I don’t see another video game adaptation in my future. I imagine there will be a lot of entrants into TV from the video game IP space, not least because of their significant pre-earned audiences. But I like to keep moving and do new things.”

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