Trying to adapt any video game into either a hit movie or an engrossing TV series has historically been a precursor for disaster
Movies such as Street Fighter: The Legend of Chun-Li, Bloodrayne, and Warcraft have been cast into the Hollywood graveyard of video game adaptations. However, in recent years it seems this label has proved not to be the death knell it once was. While the cinematic adaptations have certainly improved, it is through television that this enhancement in quality is best exemplified. Three Netflix originals in particular stand out, the last of which has put this curse to bed for good.
In 2017, Castlevania landed on Netflix following a decade pottering around in development hell. Rather than heavily reusing particular story elements, Castlevania borrows a range of narrative, character, and stylistic influences from various entries in the acclaimed game series of the same name. The first season might be cruelly short, but come the extended second season, Castlevania took off. Its beautiful animation style, drawing heavily from anime and video game artwork, relishes both its exciting new direction and esteemed creative origins. The voice actors are cast to absolute perfection and work wonders with the gem of a storyline they have been given. By the end of its second season, Castlevania drew in an estimated 30 million new users to Netflix—a monumental level of success.
Castlevania’s release and subsequent seasons have coincided with an upward trajectory in movie quality as well. Detective Pikachu, The Angry Birds Movie 2, and Sonic the Hedgehog were never going to majorly trouble award ceremonies (or even end-of-year ‘best of’ lists). That being said, you cannot help but compare them favourably to the doldrums of past video game adaptations. Like Castlevania, this newfound quality has its basis not only in a deeper understanding of its source material but a refreshed perspective on how to translate this onto the screen—like any good adaptation, really. In that sense, it seems it has finally clicked that adapting a video game isn’t much different in principle than taking inspiration from a novel or a comic book.
Enter The Witcher, immediately rising to become one of the most successful Netflix original series ever made (at least according to their own bizarre metric). Although primarily based on the books by Andrzej Sapkowski, the influence of the video game trilogy of the same name—which has sold over 50 million copies worldwide—is clear to see. The Witcher mirrors the video games in that the viewer’s attention is fixed firmly on the main character, Geralt of Rivia, although others certainly get their own detailed arcs as well. While the first season felt somewhat weighed down under the weight of its own background, early reviews for the second season have been almost universally positive. At the centre of it all is Henry Cavill’s stoic, muscular, and demented performance as Geralt. His dark charisma alone is nearly enough to make the show worth watching, although the sheer detail behind the story and the sensational production design certainly helps.
Yet both Castlevania and The Witcher have been usurped, upstaged and left dragging in the face of Arcane. Inspired by and acting as a prologue to the League of Legends online game, Arcane has taken off in an unprecedented way. It is the highest-rated Netflix original on iMDB and also makes the top ten on Rotten Tomatoes, where it is also the highest-rated animated Netflix show. It ranks higher than some of the most acclaimed Netflix originals ever (think BoJack Horseman, Mindhunter, and Orange Is the New Black). It isn’t just a hit with critics either; Arcane was Netflix’s most in-demand English language show across the world at one point, and to date has spent five weeks inside the streaming giant’s top ten. Put all that together, and you begin to get an idea of what a monumental success Arcane has proven to be.
Arcane immerses itself in the online game’s world without being dependent on it, having the good sense to show rather than tell. The entire universe is not built on long monologues or exposition, but on evocative illustration and design that brings the world to life in a way worthy of the most artistic gaming experience. Arcane dives into the origins, emotions, and thought processes of the characters more than most video games could ever hope to. Given how the whole point of gaming is to transport yourself into a new world, embodying characters and living through their experiences, this focus on character depth is a welcome change that also recognises what great games and great shows have in common.
The show addresses significant themes of sisterhood, class and technology through a steampunk-fantasy lense brimming with style and colour. The animation brings the world to life in a hypnotically colourful fashion. The 3D animation is complemented with flashes of hand-drawn colours and expressions layered on top, bringing the volatility and conflict of the characters (particularly Jinx, who seems to evoke as much terror as she does pity) to the foreground. To have such a detailed, intricate and gripping story in an adult animation is impressive enough. The fact that it is the result of condensing and simplifying not just an entire game, but the culture surrounding that game and how it is played, is a masterful touch.
Arcane has finally laid the video game curse to rest. It rises above previous attempts at bringing games to the screen with its depth, wide appeal and the sheer strength of the story. Such momentum bodes well for the future; you can get excited about game-based shows now, rather than shake your head in disbelief and concern. With Amazon’s planned adaptation of the Fallout games moving ahead and a TV adaptation of The Last Of Us having finished filming, this is very good news indeed.
Arcane is something special of course, but if future video game adaptations come anywhere close to its quality and style, then in ten years’ time you can sit back and marvel at just how far they have come.
Words by James Hanton
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