Vampire Academy (2014) Film Review
Starring: Zoey Deutch, Lucy Fry, Danila Kozlovsky
Written By: Daniel Waters (Screenplay), Richelle Mead (Novel)
Directed By: Mark Waters
My initial viewing of Vampire Academy left me with very conflicted feelings. Part of me felt so let down and angered at Mark and Daniel Waters for bringing so little justice to the material of one of my favorite book series and dumbing it down in the process. Another part of me was so thankful and thrilled to have Rose and Lissa and the secret vampiric society they resided in before me on the big screen at all; something I had been craving for a long time. I followed this film coming to life every step of the way through development when it became clear it would become a reality. I wrote a review after seeing the film nearly two years ago, an extremely critical one, even attacking so many little details that in the grander scheme of things I now realize don’t have the damaging weight they seemed to at the time. I never published that review, because I think a part of me knew a lot of that was just the initial surprise of what the film ended up being after waiting to see it realized for so long. I knew a second viewing was essential to what my true views on the film would be. Luckily, during my second viewing I was able to enjoy the film a lot more, but that doesn’t mean the flaws weren’t still evident.
Rose Hathaway (Deutch) is on the run with her vampiric, best friend, Lissa Dragomir (Fry) from their entire world. Lissa is the last in a royal line of moroi, a breed of endangered magical using, good natured vampires. Rose is a dhampir, a breed of half-vampires/ half-humans who put their lives on the line to protect moroi. The biggest threat to the moroi are strigoi, the most lifeless, vicious eternal beings imaginable that the vampire legend was built around. There is not a shred of the humanity that once resided still in them; they are ruthless and hard to kill. They are the poison of the vampire world; the worst fear come true that could end both the moroi and dhamphir species as well as turn the human world to complete destruction and chaos if it’s not managed.
Rose has been trained to kill strigoi since she was a little girl as all guardians have. However, Rose’s allegiance to protecting Lissa at all costs goes deeper than the typical guardian responsibility. They’ve been best friends, practically sisters, for as long as they can remember. Their bond became even more intense when Lissa’s entire family died in a car crash and Lissa and Rose were the only survivors. They formed a literal mental bond, albeit a 1 way bond. What is going on in Lissa’s life will enter Rose’s mind at random times, it’s as if Rose is seeing it through Lissa’s eyes as she’s experiencing it in that very moment. Even when Rose isn’t seeing complete scenes, she can still feel her emotions, including fear. This comes in handy as Lissa faces many threats and Rose will die before letting anything happen to her.
We catch up with the girls after they’ve been on the run for a year, living outside of the walls of St. Vladimir’s Academy, or as Rose likes to call it “Vampire Academy”. They were warned of a great danger to Lissa that lied inside the walls of the academy. They don’t even know the face of this danger themselves, but Rose decided to escape first and ask questions later. Rose does everything she can, but fate finally catches up with her in the form of an unbeatable guardian god, Dimitri Belikov (Kozlovsky). They are dragged back to the vicious, unforgiving gates of St. Vladimir’s to face the consequences from the head mistress and worse yet, teenage gossip and jealousy that quickly turns far more morbid and cruel than your average bullying. Someone is taunting Lissa, her life very well might be in great danger. Lissa, determined not to be a victim anymore, takes matters in to her own hands. She dives deeper in to her very complex and unknown magical affinity, which begins to take a bigger toll on her and rips apart the person she once was, the person Rose will never stop fighting for.
It’s still evident to me that the Waters brothers were ashamed of “Vampire Academy” for being in the vampire sub-genre. Once Twilight came out, which was simply a different version of a vampire story and never tried to portray itself as anything other than a romance, and there was such enormous hype around it, it also created such hate and prejudice of these types of films from then on. The vampire sub-genre seems to continuously get shamed before people even know what the content of a particular book, show, or movie holds. Vampire Academy, as a film, is an unworthy victim of that, even victimized by its own creators.
I was initially quite thrilled to hear of Mark and Daniel Waters involvement as the first “Vampire Academy” book especially had some strong statements on the ugly side of human nature and the cruel battlefront high school can be. The Waters’ brothers being responsible for bringing us Mean Girls and Heathers, two very smart, fresh comedies on the viciousness of cliques and drastic measures sometimes needing to be taken, I thought they would really take to the material and elevate it to something that was intelligent, rich, and truly made an impact. Sadly, it felt like they got lazy with the film and were trying to hide the promising and intriguing themes and story by throwing as many dumb one liners as they could at us, especially relying on Rose’s sarcasm. That felt really cheap to me, like a bad Disney channel show, insulting the audience by suggesting we are much less evolved than we are. Some of these lines really are things that don’t need to be said. It’s a staple of storytelling that everything that doesn’t add to the story takes away from it. The artificial comedy really doesn’t belong and strips away the heart of the dark situations and compelling characters and the story they have to tell.
I also think the marketing is partially to blame for this bombing like it did. It almost seemed like they were trying to turn the vampire element in to a gimmick, rather than something of great complexity and originality that it was portrayed as in the book series. I get that they were trying to appeal to as many viewers who were new to the story as possible. With fantasy epics like this, it’s so costly that the film really has to blow up at the box office or it’s a complete failure. So trying to appeal to mass audiences makes sense, but it was the fans of the books that supported the film. They were the ones that went out to the theater and even when many weren’t thrilled, still stood by it. The marketing attempted to make it look like an oversexed dumb teen comedy and didn’t bring in the new audience they had hoped for. In fact it probably turned away some people in the process and rightfully so, because if you came looking for that you would have been disappointed. Vampire Academy, at least the original novel, is really the anti-dumb oversexed comedy; it’s more about strong, fierce women (and men) who have a higher purpose than just as sex objects. Where it dabbles in sex, the message is to not let your dignity be diminished whether its from guys or girls, both cruel for their own reasons.
Luckily, the film itself had more depth to offer than what the marketing campaign made it seem like it had, but still, it was obvious the focus was all wrong. They shouldn’t have tried to make it anything other than what it already was; an incredibly unique version of vampire mythology in the modern world with compelling politics, social statements, and unique powers and realities. The original material showed seriously fierce and loveable characters battling with demons of their own in addition to the more obvious monsters that constantly kept them in fear and on the defensive. I don’t think the Waters brothers diminished that completely, that is all still there in this film, but I also don’t think they tried very hard to bring out compelling themes or deeper meaning creatively or intelligently. There are many things consistent with how the story unravels in the books, the material is so strong, it holds some power itself, but it wasn’t appreciated and explored nearly as well as it could have been.
I’m still not sure whether it’s better or worse being a fan of the series going in this film. Yes, I had to deal with a lot of the dumb one liners when I knew the material was far better than that, but I knew the depth behind everything without it needing to be said; the true spirit of these characters and all they were up against. I already loved these characters and felt such strength through them. I knew the significance of many moments the audience members who didn’t read the books probably did not. Since the film didn’t truly embrace and bring out this potential though, I was also a lot more let down than non-readers of the book series probably were.
We do get an overview of this world and to give it a little bit of a break, it’s not easy to fit all the complexities of this world in to an entire book series, let alone in the introduction of a film without seeming too exposition heavy. I think they did a decent job of showing us what the realities of this world were. As with many adaptations there are some moments where the significance is lost. One of these moments is the weight of a dhampir giving blood to a moroi not being very effectively communicated. In this society, many female dhampirs end up being what they call blood whores, basically a literal whore fed on by moroi. Blood exchange during sex can be nearly as exhilarating for both parties as the sex itself, if not more so. It’s extremely taboo though, especially since it takes away all credibility and purpose for a dhamphir. It makes them nearly worthless to their society. The resistance to becoming a blood whore is one reason most dhampirs become guardians; trained fighters, defending the moroi at all costs. It’s their chance to do something that matters; to show strength, rather than weakness. Especially for someone as determined and fierce as Rose, it could destroy who she is at her core and everything she fights for, her entire purpose. When rumors of both Lissa and other moroi vampires in the school taking Rose’s blood spreads, it’s more than idle gossip. It threatens to break who she is, simply out of jealousy and resentment by over privileged people with their egos bruised. I don’t think that comes across at all in the film, thus the deeper layers are lost and it risks seeming like that trivial high school film that marketing made it out to be.
All that being said, it probably sounds like I hated this movie. On the contrary, I genuinely enjoyed it and will likely own it and revisit it. I would even welcome another film, especially since it would give us one of my favorite fictional characters- Adrian Ivashkov! This is unlikely to happen due to the failure the first was financially though. Which is a shame, because some of the best material is still to come.
When you compare the film to the book, even with lowered expectations, it falls devastatingly short. Once you can let go of what it perhaps should have been, you can accept it for what it is, an offbeat vampire high school comedy/action/ female-centric coming of age film that reveals the secrets of this world, letting us glimpse inside as bigger evils and fears are introduced. As I’ve covered, there are flaws, but on its own, they’re fairly inconsequential. Some of the forced comedy and unnecessary, hollow lines, are really the biggest weakness. They often rubbed me the wrong way and took me out of what could have been a compelling moment. Even as an immense fan of the series and coming in to my second viewing of Vampire Academy with a much lowered opinion, really the only moments that took away from the material were those one liners that irked me. This tells me the average viewer not comparing it to anything and feeling at a loss for what wasn’t delivered, just judging it for what is there, there being a few dumb lines of dialogue for attempted comedic relief when threats, darkness, and the unknown surround our heroines, really isn’t such a bad offence and makes me have a higher opinion of it as an enjoyable film. I have to admit some of the comedy does work too. It’s not the intelligent, witty comedy I expected considering the creative forces behind the film, but it does make it a fun adventure to have with these complex girls you can’t help but love.
Rose (of the books) was always a complete rebel at heart. She was feisty, had attitude for days, and wasn’t afraid to challenge anything in a world where even questioning the way they protected both species was so against their nature. “They come first”, them being moroi, were the words they lived by. Nothing else mattered. Rose never questioned that, but she did question the way things worked in other aspects. Rose is one of the strongest female characters I’ve had the pleasure of getting to know and quickly came to love in YA fiction. She’s a character I hold inside myself and aspire to have a part of her come to life in my spirit and my own battles in life.
It’s hard not to feel like the fierceness of Rose was dulled down in the film, but we have to remember this is essentially just the first chapter and only so much can be portrayed in one film. We’re still at the point where Rose has never actually battled with a strigoi and is still in the shock phase when seeing one in the flesh. Readers of the books know Rose evolves and becomes so much stronger than she already is. We are just getting to know her. The truth is Rose’s defiant attitude and resilient spirit is shown in every frame of the movie, that was there from the beginning. Even among some of the less well written remarks she is given, the sarcasm matches her character perfectly. It also does a bit more than that. Rose is very much a part of this world, but she is not quite like anyone else that resides in it. With her never being afraid to challenge things or fight against every force that comes against her, even through poking fun at certain things or having sarcastic comments, in a way it binds the audience to her. We’re an outsider to this world, but through the eyes of an estranged warrior in training that essentially lives by her own rules, we feel more connected to it and are happy to have this adventure with her.
Any thoughts of Rose not being as fierce as she should be is really just the comedic flare sometimes clouding the more serious emotions and intensity that fuels through her. This tone is what the Waters’ chose to emphasize with her character in the film especially, but is also just the tone they choose for the film. It doesn’t make her any less fierce in reality. She is a warrior and we see the capability in her, but she is still learning and figuring out the person she will ultimately be. I initially had some regrets about Zooey Deutch playing Rose, but I think for who Rose was and the stage she was at in this film, Deutch did a fine job. She portrays everything Rose is from the spunky teenage girl to the relentless loyal spirit-bound guardian to the friend she could never bare to lose.
With any adaptation the actors are probably going to be a bit different than what you pictured for the characters. I have to say there’s something about Lucy Fry that didn’t quite match up to Lissa in my mind, but I really can’t have any complaints regarding her performance itself. She actually brought out quite a bit through her portrayal of Lissa. She was kind, a natural healer, emanated such a light, but was clearly a victim to the darkness, especially with how powerful she was and the unknown nature of the magic she carried within her. Even throughout getting sucked in to this darkness that took her victim, it was all because she didn’t want to be a victim. Rose protected her to the death. Most moroi knew the guardians were there to protect them and didn’t give another thought of fighting their own battles so to speak. She knew Rose would be there for her, but she didn’t want to depend on her, she wanted to take things in to her own compulsion- influenced hands. We see Lissa get lost and pulled away from her pure, kind- hearted nature, we see her flawed, confused, emotional, erratic, lost, and as she’s pulled out of this, she’s stronger for it, which should only make you love her more. Fry portrayed this all in a subtle, yet still powerful way.
Danila Kozlovsky made a great Dimitri, going with an authentic Russian actor definitely helped this truly feel like Rose’s favorite comrade. He portrayed the resolute, always 5 steps ahead, guardian powerhouse, while still letting that sliver of the man behind the stake come out. Rose is really the only one who he ever lets this sliver out for and even then it’s guarded, yet all the more precious when we see some deeper substance and charm from him. That is basically Dimitri in a nutshell and Kozlovsky nailed it. Overall, I don’t know if I saw their fiery passion and chemistry between Rose and Dimitri as much as it seemed I should, but it was definitely there, just more understated. Again, this is just the beginning, it builds, especially as Rose grows and they get deeper in to the danger that still lies ahead.
My favorite portrayal of all was Dominic Sherwood as Christian Ozera. I always was very intrigued by Christian in the books; I felt for him, understood him, and saw great strength in him. Especially regarding the Christian/ Lissa romance, there is no questioning how perfectly they compliment and support one another. She’s the vision of light to his perceived doomed darkness, but she has more darkness in her than others realize and he has more good. They balance this out in each other and bring out each other’s light. Despite seeming to be so opposite, they are like minded souls who see something in each other that the rest of the word doesn’t. I must say Sherwood brought this character to life so perfectly. He brings out the outsider, somewhat creepy, and very misunderstood persona, but somehow in his portrayal it seemed so real and spoke to me in a deeper way than the character ever did in the book. His on screen presence is incredible and makes you gravitate towards him and the importance of his character holds so much more weight. Mr. Sherwood, I believe you are the one thing in this adaptation that exceeded the material in the books for me, well done. I officially have my eye on you.
I do appreciate that Daniel Waters was at least true to the story, keeping many iconic and memorable scenes from the first book. If it was just loosely inspired by the characters and the basic plot, without really telling the same story, I think there would be a lot more lost. One of the most notable scenes is when the allegations of Rose being a ‘blood whore’ come out and Christian being the bad ass, unlikely knight in shining armor he is, sets the deserving perpetrator on fire without moving a finger. It was portrayed just as it was in the books and is an example of how even if fans might be disappointed with some of the wasted potential, there’s a lot for us to appreciate too. Just the simple fact that these scenes aren’t just playing in our minds anymore, but on the screen before us, fully realized, is something pretty special.
Vampire Academy brings upon complex feelings for the existing fans of this story, where as those who are new to the story can likely watch it without all the baggage and issues and feelings of coming up short. However, they also will lose some of the depth and realization of just how remarkable it all is. Would I have liked to see what someone else could do with an adaptation of “Vampire Academy”, someone who truly embraced what it was, and wanted to expose and explore the strength, complexities, and power of this story? Yes, very much so. I also, think they had the right idea with the new Shadowhunters series based on “The Mortal Instruments” books. It wasn’t as successful as a movie as it could have been, financially or creatively. It’s easier to get people to watch a TV show than to go out the theaters these days and a lot easier to be profitable. Also, there’s so much more time to really spend the proper time on character development and gripping suspense, constant twists and turns, building the story in ways that are mind blowing and connect the audience to all that is going on. A lot of the setbacks in the Vampire Academy movie is that it is introducing a very different world and reality, very complex characters, and diving in to a rich, intricate story, that is really just the beginning of much bigger things. Even for someone who really wants to bring this material to the full potential, showing all the depth on hand, it’s not an easy task and a feature film with a world this expansive has limits. With that in mind, the shortcomings don’t seem so bad.
The characters are still infectious, multifaceted, and strong. We are still introduced to a very unique version of the vampire myth that not only exists hidden in our same world, but draws so many parallels with the politics of the vampire government and hierarchy to the more basic struggles of being a teenage girl in the hateful, backstabbing halls of high school. The only difference being that at vampire academy, vile, petty rumors become even more deadly by hiding the true enemy. Danger lies in the unseen shadows, which surround them. It’s a world and climate we can all relate to nonetheless. Some of the themes and importance of the story are ever so slightly hit on in these moments, which is something to appreciate. It reminds us this isn’t a hollow adaptation; it may not have the depth and importance of the books, but there is still some resonance and meaning there among a fun, imaginative world of vampires and spirited heroines who are just coming in to their own as they face the battles ahead of them. It may only scratch the surface of all that inspired the film, but even the surface is utterly captivating.