How do you approach the show adaption of your dearest book series ever published?
Well, there are different ways and I have tried many of them while making sense of the first season of Vampire Academy (click for the imdb page), created by Julie Plec and Marguerite MacIntyre. Produced by Universal Television and for Peacock, there was quite some potential for this adaptation. But before I start talking about many pros and cons of this show, and most-importantly, my take on it in general, let me outline my history with the material and my expectations for the show.
I started reading Vampire Academy in 2012, if I’m not mistaken. Although it feels like there was more than two years between me first reading about dhampirs and moroi and the movie being released. As one can calculate, I spend more than ten years adoring these books, these characters, this world. I was immensely shaped in my expectations for relationships, bravery, and books while experiencing these six novels.
In 2014, there was a movie adaptation.
I honestly loved some of the casting – and after seeing the show – how close they kept to the story given in the books. The movie wasn’t great though. Some dialogues were off, some things were too rushed, too lightly taken for us to take the movie seriously in reverse. Therefore, I had high hopes for a series adaptation that could invest more time in some story lines, in the characters’ development and their relations’ build up. For more information about the improvements of the show compared to the movie, an article of the Paste Magazine might be delightful to read.
When they first released information on this show, I was cheerful. I liked the idea of Julie Plec adapting the books. She had done quite a thing with The Vampire Diaries, although her adaption was far off from the original material. That’s what I was afraid of most now. L. J. Smith’s books were to my great distaste, so changing things was beneficial to the story in my eyes. But Richelle Mead’s books are great in my opinion. They stayed with me for many, many years and I love going back to them and rereading all of Rose’s adventures. So there were surely some mixed feelings.
The cast announcement caught me by surprise once more.
I loved seeing that it was way more diverse than the movie’s. It featured PoC as much as people with different home countries. Therefore, barely anyone of them looked like what I pictured the characters from the books years ago. Nor did they look too much like what Richelle Mead described them as. But given that the movie cast was close to the book but didn’t know how to truly get to the core of the characters, I was not put off by it at all. I welcomed the diversity and especially looked forward to seeing the young actors and actresses’ performances.
Confusion stirred up when the character names and the trailer were released. One could tell, there were some changes made to the books. Characters were related that weren’t in the original. That made me wonder how that might play out in the story. Nevertheless, the trailer looked great. I got even more excited to watch the first episodes. There were fight scenes, emotional moments, and fun – presumable from the first impressions of the show. And I told a lot of people to go watch it.
I soon withdraw my recommendation after watching the first four episodes. Well, not after the first one to be fair. So, let’s dive into my thoughts episode per episode. The first is going to be the most extended one as we get a lot of input. Given some very unexpected turns, I am willing not to spoil anything within this post. Therefore, my complaints might sound very generalized and as if they were lacking evidence. But be assured that I put a lot of thoughts into these episodes that I watched twice. If you are interested into talking about the show or my opinion, don’t hesitate (pun intended) to contact me here, on Instagram or anywhere else.
Episode 1: Pilot
The first thing we got to see is montage of our two main characters that is provided by a voice-over of them. They explain the existence of moroi and dhampir to us, mentioning the bad vampires (strigoi) and the class differences. This was well done for us to get a grip on the world. It also built up tension by foreshadowing “a night to change everything”.
The following ball stirs confusion when we see characters who were already dead in the books being alive. Although that was soon resolved, this stayed a common theme of this series adaption. But first off, this ball presents not only our protagonists Lissa and Rose as dear friends against the class system. It also showed the moroi league to express the charm of the Victorian era. Their costumes were hilarious first but soon fitted their elitist and self-presenting character.
With the royalty control at the entrance to the ball, the class system was even more stressed when Victor Dashkov (J. August Richards) and his daughters Mia (Mia McKenna-Bruce) and Sonya (Jonetta Kaiser) arrived (yes, Mia and Sonya are Victor’s adopted children). The idea of signifying royal and non-royal moroi by the color of their eyes when lighted seemed odd at first but worked quite well eventually.
I soon found the setting to be very limited. Most of the episodes were set within the school of St. Vladimir Academy, which did not quite make sense to me. Why would the queen (Mariana, not Tatiana as in the books) celebrate her birthday at one of many schools?
Let’s look at the characters.
We get to know Rose and Lissa first off. They warmed my heart with their friendship and interactions. Rose, moreover, stroke me with her so-Rose comments. I was surprised by her comradery with a male guardian who had his eye on Sonya soon after. Consequently, this had to be Mikhail. I loved that they took his character into this adaption, although he only appears in the fifth book, if I’m not mistaken. I always felt like his relationship with Sonya was cut short in the books and was now begging for more.
During the ball, there is an attack that nicely presents the dangers of the strigoi but also the efficiency of the dhampir guardians. I loved how quickly that played out. They also portrayed the defaults of being any kind of vampire within this first episode when Lissa was burning herself in the sunlight. Dhampirs, on the other side, had more superhuman attributes to them then I remembered from the books, plus: Their education unfortunately seemed and stayed limited to combat and guardian strategy. Nevertheless, I enjoyed their fierce portrayal in this pilot. They intriguingly brought the books and their characters to life.
Lissa (as gentle and beautiful) and Rose (as fierce prattle-monger) perfectly fitted my imagination of these characters, but what about the boys/men?
Dimitri (Kieron Moore) had me swoon when he was first presented to the fans. Fortunately, they reenacted his first meeting with Rose in a satisfying way and made his stoic character just evident enough. Kieron’s accent stroke me as Mancunian, not Russian, but I was fine with that until they pointed out his Russian childhood in episode four. I mean… why bring it up if that is just hilarious by being that obviously off?
Christian Ozera as the second love interest is quite another case. His first meeting with Lissa could be seen resembling at the one in the books, but his character is different. I would never blame the actor for it because he is aware of it, but the show’s Christian lacks his dearly loved temper. He has but one sassy comment in all the show so far. And one could tell from the very first episode that he won’t be what many were hoping for. His interactions with Lissa are cute but certainly lack fire and chemistry. They soon seem too alike to spark a flame, although his usage of fire soon becomes one of my favorite things in the series. It surely is presented well.
The academy vibes were lacking, as well.
The guardians are solely trained for combat, the moroi are barely shown doing anything other than partying. I was missing the classes, the daily routine, the small details and the youth of the characters that made the books resonate with that many people. However, it might be that they needed to step away from the teaching to balance Rose and Dimitri’s connection later. Their student-teacher-relationship was probably the most critical aspect of the books, and it worked just as fine for them to develop a more equable relation in the show.
In addition, Sonya wasn’t a teacher but working in the school, as far as I understood. She seemed odd to the right degree, and I loved the first hints (‘your yellow’) to her secrets a lot. Starting the show earlier than the books in Rose and Lissa’s story allowed us to personally meet Sonya – one of the great choices made.
Most surprising to me was, how much I enjoyed meeting Mia and Meredith – individually at first. The former was one of the least favorite characters to most in the books and I loved Mia McKenna-Bruce claiming this character for herself and making us like her within seconds. She was so honest and true and not a shy little girl with self-doubts. She also had a clear agenda (that was, additionally, not connected to a man), but they created her as a three-dimensional character who we are looking forward to seeing more of. The same is true for Meredith, a dhampir barely mentioned in the books, but she immediately and effectively throws in some puns and punches. I Ioved to see another fierce woman character in the dhampir ranks.
After watching this pilot, I was convinced by the characters (except for Christian) and surprised by how much I enjoyed this take on my favorite books so far.
I adored Dimitri but wondered in how far his presence would allow the show to use the events of the books until he enters it. It became clear that this adaption would put a lot more focus on the politics within the dominion with royal moroi at the one end and dhampirs with their common dormitory at the other end of the scale. Given the diverse casting and the first implications of more diverse characters, I thought this to be a great example to make this show relevant for nowadays audiences. By the end of this episode, I was confident to like this series. Unfortunately, the next ones painted a different picture.
Episode 2: Earth. Air. Water. Fire.
This title made us hope for more elaborations on the school day of moroi, given that they are at an academy. Unfortunately, that was not what the second episode provided. We solely see Christian in one class with Jesse, offering an exquisite opportunity for one of the best moments from the first book, but get… nothing. The actor later confirmed that a cut scene plays into the book scene a bit more, nevertheless, we are not able to judge that.
Another rather confusing development for me was the relationship between Mikhail and Sonya. While I loved seeing them courting each other, Mikhail’s efforts seemed out of place given the trouble made about Rose and Lissa’s friendship. How can he be that self-assured and open about his feelings when she is a moroi, though an outcast? More than being in love, these two please us with trying to understand strigoi. Unfortunately, it does not make any sense for Sonya to invest any thought in that issue, at all, even when Mikhail is fully involved.
The essence of this episode is Lissa’s specialization ceremony – her initiation to the royal council.
As a moroi, she needs to present her affiliation with one of the four elements, thus the title. She is slightly freaking out and supported not only by Christian – our favorite push-over – but later by Rose as well. In contrast to what I felt for most of the episode, the producers gifted us with one scene I was immensely fond of. Just like in the books, Rose puts Lissa all above her own struggles and comforts her. Within a quite short scene, we get to experience their deep friendship and the strength they provide each other with.
I also enjoyed some other details. Lissa’s and, therefore, Rose’s dreams remind me a lot of the books. Dimitri makes Rose train and run and does not spare her his beloved life lessons. We get to see Dean Kirova when Rose is put in front of a tribunal to discuss her latest deeds and Lissa pleads the headmistress to let Rose stay. Finally, our protagonist presents her best-known attitude within one hell of a monologue: Rose needs to be strong because she has no other option, because she needs to protect Lissa above all.
My biggest complaint is probably one setting that frequently appears during the next episodes.
In town, the dhampirs quite often meet up in a bar just for them. Not only do they, during these scenes, abandon the moroi for a reason I haven’t grasp yet, but they also dance and drink and, most strikingly for Dimitri, play billiard. I mean… Honestly? The whole essence of the dhampir society is neglected within these scenes that give us barely anything in return, besides overdramatic drinking scenes with Rose and cheesy encounters with Dimitri. At least we got to see the duster (one of Dimitri’s dearest trademarks in the books) afterwards.
A little light at the end of the tunnel were Mia and Meredith. Their first encounter was a real meet-cute though not in the conventional sense. I enjoyed Mia even more in this second episode and liked Meredith for being not quite what we expected of her, so I couldn’t wait to see more of these two girls. I was even quite excited for the third episode after this one’s cliffhanger. We just once more got to see some strigoi who look surprisingly bad, in a good way.
Episode 3: Death Watch
The third episode gave me a lot of a headache. With the events portrayed, we were far into the happenings of the series’ second and even third book. Nevertheless, we haven’t even touched on the depth of the characters developed throughout the first installment of Richelle Mead’s books. To not spoil too much, I won’t go into detail. I simply want to point out that the story seemed to rush from now on. Characters were introduced that we only got to meet after several other events so that they simply couldn’t affect the characters in the same way, if even in any.
We had some familiar features though and I loved to see them come alive. Moreover, I could finally see and feel the relationship and tension between Rose and Dimitri develop. I even enjoyed a new trait of the story’s world that is the call outs for fallen dhampirs. The producers did a great job with juxtaposing the moroi’s and the dhampirs’ manners of dancing and celebrating, as well. We were able to find out more about the bound that Rose and Lissa share while some of the latter’s powers were portrayed beautifully and Christian (why him though?) starts to figure it out. Another quite beautiful appearance is Lissa’s style – thumps up for the costume designers!
Episode 4: Benchmark
While we see Romitri training together – harmonizing with and teasing each other just about the right amount –, Lissa and Christian’s later agony was not able to shake me. I enjoyed the series’ engagement with Sonya and her powers as we finally get to see some of the issues that Victor has to struggle within the series’ first book. The show’s emphasis on the politics of the dominion and the arrogance of the royal moroi was interesting to watch.
Once again, the show took on events only to be featured in later books of the series and rushed through them. This time, they are thus not only lacking affect but also sense in their portrayal. At least they offer the possibility to demonstrate Rose’s progress of learning, although this, too, is quite rushed. I hoped for the show to take more time to develop the characters.
Another good example for missed opportunities in developing a character is Mason Ashford, portrayed by Andrew Liner.
He was charming and dear from the very first second and presents his affection for Rose smoothly, but over time, this seems to be his only real character trait. Only in this episode, we can see that he is more than her lap dog. His final monologue of the episode is brilliantly written though not completely fair towards Rose. I enjoyed seeing this side of him that stands up for himself instead of being another pushover like Christian.
While we got an amazing dialogue between Dimitri and Christian – a team I’d been looking forward to seeing more in the show than in the books –, the relation between Mikhail and Sonya passed the talking phase. Their sex scene was bland and added nothing to the story if you’re asking me. Unfortunately, that was not the last sex scene of the show that I’d describe like that.
Episode 5: Near Guard, Far Guard
This episode featured more stupid and senseless decisions of the Royal Council. To my dislike, these politicians weren’t the only characters that made me furious. At least their actions could be explained by their privileges. The dhampirs’, on the contrary, really disappointed me. I loved Alberta a lot in the books and liked her so far in the show. She is attentive and smart, but now they made her take orders without reflecting or decency. Although the dynamics between dhampir and moroi are a bit different from their cooperation in the books, this seemed, nevertheless, out of place. Dhampirs are no thoughtless brutes.
One small light at the end of this tunnel called adaptation was Eddie portrayed by Blake Patrick Anderson. Next to Mikhail, he had not a lot of scenes, but lightened up any minute they were in. Being hilarious and joyful, they proved immensely important for this show that gets very dark and harrowing from time to time, especially by the end of this episode.
Starting with this episode, we began to discover not only Rose changing, but also Dimitri overthinking his duties. Kieron Moore did a great job portraying this conflict of duty and emotions, seemingly right and wrong in a character that controlled but eventually passionate, as well. Still, Rose played by Sisi Stringer is the one to astonish us the most within these 50 minutes and to take the most physical and mental punches that will vividly haunt her – something similar to the books and, therefore, welcomed.
Another character leaving her mark from now on with growing intensity is Tatiana.
I wasn’t quite sure where to put her at first, as she is a series’ original character. But given that fact, she is one of the few who are able to surprise us again and again. At least, her motivations and actions seem reasonable so far.
With this episode, I really lost my faith in this series for the moment. I had a hard time with the show changing characters’ storylines completely. I was and still am wondering, if the producers enjoyed themselves while destroying the fans’ hopes in seeing their future actions or if they were simply thoughtless or rather too lazy to give characters other names than the ones charged with that many emotions and events during the books. At least the got the better out of Mia and Meredith and their growing relationship.
Episode 6: Molnija
The title might give away quite a lot about this episode. But it does not hint to the character that we all hoped to see someday and are already appeared within this sixth episode. Although his cigarettes, his catchline, his style, and a lot of his charm were missing, I was, overall, satisfied with encountering Adrian Ivashkov for the first time. I also loved the series’ first (and only) portrayal of some of his powers.
Only in this episode, we get to see the dhampirs in decent action again.
They do what they only were presented doing in the very first episode: guarding their moroi. We also discover some more rebellious ones of them which was a welcomed surprise. Especially Sascha was an interesting addition to the set of characters although they generally didn’t make much use of her.
Jesse, the probably most hated character during all his appearance in the books, gets surprisingly much of screen time. In most of the scenes, he is accompanied by a blood whore called Silva. They even get a side storyline for themselves which was kind of unnecessary but, by the end of the show, not too dislikable. Especially Silva proved to be an enrichment for the show, although her constant appearances lack sense. Nevertheless, she was able to redeem Jesse to a certain degree and make him somewhat interesting.
An enjoyable part of this episode was dedicated to an unexpected pairing that is Mia and Christian.
Within their scenes, we learn about the existence of one Tasha Ozera, Christian’s aunt, who they unfortunately decide not to give the same possibility of action like in the books. A pity.
I’d give the episode some plus points for another great fight scene, a fierce Sonya moment, the growing attachment I felt for Romitri, some more serious guardian work and the allegory to one very delightful pool party, but I simply had to roll my eyes on the final scene that could have been part of the latest Shades of Grey installment.
Episode 7: Beyond the Wards
The seventh episode introduced us to some more lore of the dhampir and moroi’s world. For the show, they changed some of the dominion’s history to align the religious saints, above all St. Vladimir, with the royal family – giving the royals even more reason to feel superior (maybe rather explaining their privileged position in the first place).
Shockingly, the creators decided not only on that alignment but also on the presentation of alchemists that were only of interest starting from the fourth book. Moreover, they portrayed them as a mixture of characters from Men in Black and Matrix, but at least their lilies were astonishingly beautiful and did not look fake. I also enjoyed that we get a glimpse on their work and their tools which I loved to discover throughout the books – especially within the spin off series called Bloodlines.
Another major part of this episode constituted the campaigning and fighting for the throne, resulting in a storyline only explored within the book series’ sixth installment. The next episode will even further engage with the royal trials, unfortunately, in a non-sensical – even ridiculous in its presentation – manner. I understand the way the creators try to present some insights in the dominion’s structure and procedures, but for me, they did not do the series any favors with that.
More enjoyable was the sparks igniting between our main couple that is Rose and Dimitri.
Although their relationship would probably not need to stay secret within the series’ context (and won’t for long), the writers spice it up this way. And yes, I could finally get some tension, some fire, some emotions from this couple and their interactions. They even had some heart-warming scenes, another dynamic fighting scene (although it ended in a non-sensical way), and even some fun within this usually serious, dark world. I cherished the writers for including some more Dimitri backstory and gifting his character with more motivations, as well. On the other hand, we got to feel a lot on Rose’s side and could experience her emotions thanks to Sisi Stringer’s astonishing acting.
Finally, Adrian had another appearance and gave us more of his charm that we came to love so much within the books. Although he seemed somewhat on the nose sometimes, I loved his involvement in this storyline. I hope to see more of his growing friendship with Lissa in a potential second season after the producers decided not to use this hilarious character any more after this episode.
Episode 8: The Trials
Left with some emotional damage after the last episode, only few developments within this one gave me hope. Although Dimitri performed in a book-familiar way, his new comradery with Tatiana would soon be a pain in the ass for me, climaxing in scenes that destroyed all my faith in Kieron to turn out to be the book Dimitri we hoped for. Instead, the show’s Dimitri acts like book Dimitri could and would never. This is true for this and the next episode for sure. Nevertheless, we also get some heart-wrenching moments with him.
Lissa and Christian get some touching scenes, although they seem exaggerated. At least, by the end of the episode, Lissa gifts us with the probable best monologue of the whole first season. Our favorite princess also shares some endearing scenes with her bestie, still, the writers put unnecessary emphasis on their manner of sharing a drug dream to discover the happenings of the accident that set the whole story in motion and deprived Lissa of her parents. More than by the non-sensical discoveries resulting from it, I was set off by the importance the show’s writers invested the accident with. This gave me the feeling that nothing from the books’ plot was taken up by the show once more.
To end this episode on a positive note, I want to highlight the awesome construction that is the feeder’s chair. Thus, cheers to the set designers and their eye for style and practicality.
Episode 9: Darkness
This ninth episode takes us even further away from the familiarity of the academy and the books’ setting. We get engaged in games of political power and guardian affairs of treason and punishment. Both offer tensive developments for the second-to-last installment of the season but could not be taken all serious due to some off decisions. One of them is Dimitri wearing a tracking collar that made him look enormously ridiculous. Another was the ending of this episode, a presumable cliffhanger, being quite foreseeable in my opinion. At least the very last moment offered some shock and anticipation for the series’ finale.
Mia was the light of this episode when Mia McKenna-Bruce offers not only an amazing, touching monologue but also portrays her character in different shades ranging from smart to emotional to fierce. Her counter-part Meredith had some bad-ass moment, as well, when she confronts Mason with full honesty – at least on topics concerning him. The secrets she keeps from all the other characters, that we can barely make any suspicions about, are one of the reasons I would like to have a second season.
Another character showing some more layers, is Victor.
Readers of the book will have a welcomed moment of realization within this episode. It is followed by another cherished confrontation that even tops the books’ resolution of a conflicting moment for me. Unfortunately, we get to witness a non-sensical, exaggerated decision by Lissa next. At least, this is made up for by a beautiful, shared moment between her and Rose presenting their friendship and their individual development and strenght. The dhampir has learned more within the episodes of this first season than within the first two books and, therefore, seems more mature overall. Though that might be a welcomed acceleration for some who had problems with Rose being impulsive and naïve at the books’ beginning, I missed seeing her grow and learn to some degree.
Episode 10: Ascension
This finale episode was all about redemption if you ask me. From the series’ expected to the more surprising enemies to minor actors like Alberta – a lot of characters were granted with some story or scene to raise them in the audience’s estimation. Moreover, some of their motives and deeds were explained, though in an odd collage of scenes when it comes to the newest addition to the list of hated characters.
In this finale, the characters not only have to fear but also fight for their lives.
This creates a lot of tensive moments throughout the whole episode. It’s most visible in a countdown till sunrise that would promise protection from the strigoi. The classicism within the dominion is once again portrayed during the characters’ fight for survival. This calls for some coordination, as well, although I found it repeatedly ridiculous to involve solely the main characters (Dimitri, Rose, Mason and few other dhampirs) but no experienced guardians. Next on, the fight scenes were well choreographed by the stunt coordinators for sure. Nevertheless, the generally cute talk between Rose and Dimitri seemed out of place and exaggerated.
Not only the dhampirs are presenting their hero material: Lissa proves to be worthy of a leading position within the dominion. While she does not shy awayfrom putting others’ wellbeing above her own, we suffer with her and feel her physical and emotional exhaustion. That is thanks to Daniela Nieves’ extraordinary performance. Without spoiling any of the happenings, I regret being deprived of an amazing, promising character – not Lissa! – way too soon. Besides this missed opportunity, this finale episode had some welcomed surprises and emotions. It, moreover, ends on a tensive, hopeful tone with an overall unexpected connection to the books that was extremely satisfying to me.
Chemistry was a massive problem within this show. I got to know that the producers did chemistry reads via Zoom. Thus, I can only blame that scenario for the lack of fire between the characters. Romitri had some moments and learned to tease each other just like in the books. Dragozera, on the other hand, felt off to me most of the time. While Dragozera lacked fire but were constantly aware of each other’s feelings, quite the same was surprisingly true for Romitri. They rushed through the development of Rose and Dimitri’s relationship which was a major factor of many decisions Rose made within the books. Consequently, the show was unable to provide the same emotional depth and tension we dearly loved within the books. Mikhail and Sonya were sweet but put through unnecessary sex scenes – as were Mason and Rose. The only truthful couple to me, right from the beginning, were Meredith and Mia. They brightened up every single episode and I simply want more of them.
With Mia and Meredith as an example, I want to praise once more the diversity of this production. There were some more queer characters but also many actors and actresses of color. Additionally, many womenare involved in the creative team.
Fight scenes were a big plus of the whole show.
They were perfectly staged and thus built up a lot of tension so we were holding our breaths constantly. From the first episode to the first battle, I was intrigued by this portrayal of organized defense and trained brutality.
As so often in teen shows – especially when they are created by Julie Plec – drama is an obligation. Every now and then, I was tempted to roll my eyes while watching this new adaption of the books. Unfortunately, that was not in the same delighted way like during my time of reading. I was disappointed by how far some characters and their portrayal strayed from their core in the books. Mia is an example for a positive outcome of this drift, but Dimitri is quite the opposite.
In conclusion, …
I am willing to recommend this series and would be delighted to see another season. The more the series went on, the more I was furious about the changes of events, their order, and the characters. But with more time, I also got better in separating the show and the original books. If you haven’t read the books and love teen series with fierce protagonists, cool fighting scenes, hot characters and some romance and conspiracy, this show will be a pleasure for you. If you love the original books, then better be prepared to be shocked by these accumulating changes. Nevertheless, you might be able to enjoy this show by the final two episodes – just as I did.