On Netflix’s Zelda adaptation

Last month, a flurry of reports emerged alleging that Nintendo and Netflix were in the process of developing a live-action series based on The Legend of Zelda. And by all accounts, they’re really going for something big; the phrase “Game of Thrones for a family audience” was thrown around for good measure. Lots of people seem pretty excited about the rumored adaptation, and it’s easy to see why. In addition to boasting one of the deepest and richest universes in all of gaming, The Legend of Zelda is well known and easily recognized by even the most casual of gamers. Twenty-five years and seventeen games’ worth of intellectual property would provide showrunners with an immense array of pre-imagined kingdoms, characters, and potential plot arcs. Meanwhile, the franchise’s loose and fractured timeline almost seems tailor-made to allow creators the freedom to craft their own original stories rather than attempting faithful adaptations of any games in particular.

Still, despite all the elements of Zelda that point toward a TV series being a great idea, there’s at least one enormous obstacle for the concept, right at the center of everything else: Link.

Link is bold, daring, and adventurous. He’s courageous. He’s valiant and fearless. He’s quintessentially heroic. All of these traits and characteristics make Link a fantastic video game protagonist. In any Zelda game, no matter what befalls him, Link is unfazed. He harbors no resentments, swears no vengeance, battles no inner demons, and hides no secrets. He is emotionless and unwavering, and nothing disconcerts him. Importantly though, Link remains entirely vincible. While he never speaks, he’ll grunt when he lifts something heavy and he’ll cry out in pain when he’s wounded by an enemy. It’s these small vulnerabilities that allow Link to register as more human than robot and let players appreciate Link’s various sacrifices and tribulations along the way to his eventual triumphs.

Link’s one-dimensionality works so well in The Legend of Zelda games because he doesn’t need to be a character with his own personality as much as an avatar for the human being holding the controller. His name betrays his purpose – very literally, he is the link through the fourth wall that immerses a player in the lands of Hyrule. “Link” isn’t even a binding name within the franchise; the first task for the player in every Zelda game is to name the green-clad youth he’ll spend the game controlling. When Link steps into an underwater castle or gets sent seven years into the future or wakes up to find that he’s been transformed into a wolf, he doesn’t react whatsoever. He never shows any wonder, trepidation, fear, or hesitation, because as long as the game designers have done their jobs right, he doesn’t need to. Instead, it’s up to the player in the real world to feel a personal response to these big moments.

But that’s not how emotional resonance works in a non-interactive medium like television. Game designers play by their own rule set: “do, don’t show.” Screenwriters, meanwhile, strive to “show, don’t tell.” And this is the crux of the problem when it comes to adapting Link for television; Link, by design, never shows. He lets the player do all the exploring and puzzle-solving and boss-battling while he himself offers little more than wordless shouting during swordfights and stifled noises in response to pain. A flawlessly brave and earnestly stoic protagonist like Link is perfectly suited for a starring role in a video game, but the same spartan personality traits just don’t make for an interesting central character in a television show. Even Link’s selective silence is a problem for adaptation. How would an accurate TV version of Link carry out a conversation? Monosyllabic answers would make Link come across as rude and antisocial, which Link surely isn’t, but to inject the character with any degree of enthusiasm or attitude would betray the essence of what Link really is: a blank slate.

That’s the real Catch-22 here. Pluck Link’s characterization straight out of Ocarina of Time or any other game, and there’s no TV show to be made. But give Link enough of the aspects necessary for a compelling TV character, and he’s no longer really Link. Any rendition of Zelda worth its salt needs to have a familiar version of Link at its center, but a decent television series would require something just a little more complicated. Components like a background story, a personal motivation, or a tragic weakness would need to be considered for the first time. Even if the writers were able to dig deep and nail the balance between true-to-form Link and good-for-television Link, a similarly heavy burden would still have to fall on the shoulders of an actor. Ideally, the role of Link would go to someone youthful and energetic enough to convincingly portray a teenage boy, but also mature enough to provide a subtler performance, eschewing outward displays of emotion in favor of more economical reactions. Finding somebody capable of conveying Link’s heroics without hamming it up and infusing the character with any sort of ego is a difficult task even if the character is perfectly written.

It’s not impossible to successfully bring Link to the television screen, but the process of adapting The Legend of Zelda for television has already gone horribly awry once in exactly this way. By most measures, 1989’s short lived Zelda animated series still holds up today as as well any other Friday afternoon cartoon from the same era, but it’s widely mocked and best forgotten today for the way it depicted Link – and to a lesser extent, Princess Zelda. He was arrogant, sarcastic, and not particularly likable in any way; she was proud, vain, and condescending. They bickered like an old married couple to the point where Link’s catchphrase became a contempt-laden and dragged out, “well excuse me, Princess!” Every episode is available for viewing on YouTube, and while there’s no compelling reason to sit through any of them, it’s interesting to poke around and see just how badly the adaptation whiffed on the source material. Granted, only two Zelda games had been made at the time of the cartoon’s production, so neither Link nor Zelda had many established characteristics after just two NES titles, and the glaring characterization issues only look particularly bad in hindsight.

No such excuse can be made if the rumored Netflix series fails to deliver. The stakes are much higher for adapting what is now one of the oldest and most popular video game franchises in the world. It won’t be easy to turn Link into a compelling protagonist without compromising who he is, but for a room full of people who do this stuff for a living, it’s certainly feasible. And for an undertaking where expectations are this high, it’s absolutely necessary. Take too many liberties with Link’s personality, and there’s a risk of tarnishing the Zelda brand. Leave him silent, stoic, and unwavering, and the series is dead on arrival with a non-character at its center. Get Link just right, however, and the rest of the show really should fall into place around him.


The Stanpoint is a semi-regular feature in which Steve shares an opinion related to topics from recent gametimebro podcasts, reviews, and musings.

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