Vampires are a perpetually popular source of entertainment. There’s a sexiness and a sense of history to them that can make for in-depth storytelling. They’re also perfect for the teen market, probably because the vampire hierarchy, archaic rules, and raging emotions feel perfectly suited to young adults growing up. So it’s no surprise that, in the wake of The CW’s long-running vampire series “The Vampire Diaries,” “The Originals,” and “Legacies,” that creator Julie Plec would want to turn to another YA version of vampire novels: Richelle Mead’s “Vampire Academy.”
“Vampire Academy” is a series so rich with history that a big reason the new Peacock show struggles to gain footing is trying to fit it all in. It exists in a world of vampire royalty known as Moroi and human/vampire guardians called Dhampirs. The novels, and show, follow Rose Hathaway (Sisi Stringer), a Dhampir attending the prestigious St. Vladmir’s Academy with her best friend Vasilisa “Lissa” Dragomir (Daniela Nieves), the last of her family and presumed heir to the Moroi throne.
If you knew all that already, you likely binged the 2014 movie of the same name, also based on the book series.
The film actually had some pretty good clout, being a return to high school movies for “Mean Girls” director Mark Waters with a script from his brother, Daniel, the screenwriter behind “Heathers.” A pre-success Zoey Deutch starred as Rose. Unfortunately, the movie never cracked the Top 10 upon release in February of 2014 (the year “The Lego Movie” came out), ultimately grossing $15.4 million on a $30 million budget. A failed Indiegogo campaign to finance a sequel went nowhere and the series stagnated until Peacock developed it for TV.
This new adaptation of “Vampire Academy” follows the same trajectory as the book and is more of a reboot than continuation. However, the new series has a host of problems that unfortunately accompany several of Peacock’s shows: There’s an overall Saturday Morning TV-level of quality, from its writing to its acting, that’s at odds with its pedigree.
Let’s break down the key reasons the new series fails and the 2014 feature remains superior.
The Series Tells Us Way Too Much History
The process of adapting anything is arduous, but sometimes the need to pare things down for an audience to digest it can be the best solution. The Peacock series is overstuffed. Of the eight episodes available to press for review, at least half contain lengthy expositional passages for the characters to deliver about Moroi and Dhampir history and tradition. Snooze.
Even the opening credits contain information that, weirdly enough, is required reading to find out pertinent information, like why Lissa freaks about about failing to specialize in a certain element. Add to that an overabundance of characters and the audience is given a lot of people and information to compartmentalize like they’re studying for an exam.
The feature film lays out the vampire hierarchy as quickly as possible, and to watch the movie all you really need to know is a Moroi is a vampire and a Dhampir is a guardian. It also foregoes much of the minutiae to emphasize the power dynamics between Lissa and others who seek to use her for their own ends. Simple enough!
Lissa and Rose’s Relationship Is Stronger in the Film
A big criticism of the “Vampire Academy” feature, particularly from fans of Mead’s novels, is how much it condensed and diverged from the source material. But the central focus still remained the same: Lissa and Rose’s relationship. If anything, the dynamic between Deutch’s Rose and Lucy Fry’s Lissa is intensified because of how often they’re on-screen together. Because both Waters brothers are adept at high school relationships, much of Lissa’s conflict plays up the very typical high school problem of what happens when one friend becomes popular and another doesn’t — just add vampires.
The series gives Lissa and Rose two divergent plots that force the runtime of the episodes to expand far beyond its need (50 minutes an episode!) and make it feel like there are two different series running at once. The show’s Lissa isn’t just learning to become royal, and all the exposition therein; she’s also engaged in a forbidden relationship with Christian Ozera (Andre Dae Kim), a social outcast because his parents willingly turned into Strigoi, a vampire subset that drinks blood like traditional vamps. Meanwhile, Rose goes down a path of learning how to be a good guardian and having a flirty relationship with another Dhampir, Dimitri (Kieron Moore). All of these elements are also into the film, just blended and boiled down to the essential bits to keep the runtime serviceable.
The Film Is Silly!
Respectfully, it’s vampires! Where’s the fun? Mead’s books are targeted at a young audience. The story is meant to focus on teens in high school, and yet you wouldn’t know it considering that Peacock’s “Vampire Academy” pulls from the likes of Amazon’s recent “I Know What You Did Last Summer” reboot and Plec’s own “Vampire Diaries” world, emphasizing the sex, foul language, and in-depth political discussions like this is “Succession.”
It’s not that this series needs to be F-word free, but there’s an intensity that skews towards a far older audience that might not even be interested in this series to begin with. The 2014 film understood the dark humor of the high school world, giving us catty teen shenanigans and a prom sequence. We’ve certainly come a long way from the hedonism of ’80s vamps like “The Lost Boys.”
The Film’s Level of Acting and Production Quality Raises the Stakes
As noted above, the Peacock series screams Saturday Morning TV. The CGI leaves a lot to be desired, and while the actors are good, they’re not great. Everyone speaks in reverent, hushed tones to enhance the supposed seriousness, but the entire ordeal comes off as wooden. And the script has some truly laughable lines, such as this gem that’s meant to be romantic: “You’re a unicorn. Unicorns are rare.” Do unicorns exist in this world as opposed to ours? Who knows!
The enhanced budget of the 2014 feature takes care of those issues. Sure, its lines are just as silly — though it’s romantic usage of the phrase “sweet sassy molassy” is wonderful in its own way — but it’s balanced with stronger acting and special effects. The movie is dated, but there’s an inherent lightness that lets fans know the film understands its audience. There’s little bite but at least the movie has fun sinking its teeth into the material.
“Vampire Academy” is available to stream on Peacock September 15.