Adam Wingard (director), David Tattersall (cinematographer), Louis Cioffi (editor), Masi Oka, Roy Lee, Dan Lin, Jason Hoffs (producers),
Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater (screenplay), adapted from Death Note
by Tsugumi Ohba Takeshi Obata
Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Keith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe (cast)
August 25, 2017
The American adaptation of Death Note has been in the works for ten years. It has changed hands more than a dozen times, eventually making its way via Warner Brothers to Netflix in 2016. It already had a director, Nat Wolff was already slated to play Light, and there was an early script in the works. Netflix saw it as an opportunity and seized it. Let me tell you, I wish they hadn’t.
The Netflix remake is nothing like the original story, penned by Tsugumi Ohba and drawn by Takeshi Obata. Sure, they share a few names, a few plot points, and some characters. That’s it. This Death Note doesn’t feel like Death Note at all. The basic premise is similar to the manga: a shinigami named Ryuk drops his Death Note into the human world and someone with the word Light in their name finds it. However at no point in the film is it clear what this story is actually about. It’s not about Light and his manga antagonist L battling it out; two brilliant minds, circling each other closer and closer in a psychological thriller that questions the very nature of what it means to be a good person. This Death Note didn’t leave me questioning the morality of murdering criminals. Instead, it left me questioning why Netflix let this travesty happen while they proudly host the original anime series for viewers. Anyone who appreciates a good psychological thriller will likely choose the anime over this terrible movie.
The main character in the film, Light Turner, is boring. He’s your typical American teenager with a mix of vengeful superhero tropes: his mother was killed by a criminal, he argues with his dad (who happens to be a cop) all the time, and he’s bullied at school. He’s smart enough to make cash on the side selling homework answers, but he is no Yagami Light. Yagami Light gets the top spot in his national preparatory exams and any girl in school will go out with him. Yagami Light is the perfect son, getting A’s in every class, and is invited by schoolmates to hang out. Of course, he doesn’t go out because he has a job to do at night: cleanse the rotten world of its criminal behavior.
In Death Note adaptations throughout the years, the main character Light has always had a very strong sense of black and white justice. He is the charismatic sociopath, the golden child, and the protagonist. Criminals must die, and good people must live. He believes that he is doing what’s right, that he is the only one who can. His twisted sense of self-righteous judgment helps him to devise his clever plots. Yagami Light is always convinced he’s the only one who knows what’s right.
Not so with Light Turner. Throughout the Netflix Death Note, he questions using the Death Note. From the very beginning, Ryuk bullies him into writing in it. Light Turner is the opposite of Yagami Light; he lacks self-confidence and isn’t sure what’s right and what’s wrong. He relies on a cute girl, his dad, and a demon that is busy manipulating him, to make decisions. He barely has any willpower. Yagami Light, the basis for this character, is not like this at all. His composure, control, and competence are what make him so fascinating to follow in the story of Death Note.
The mishandling of Ryuk is another example of a character that was butchered by the film. He eats apples, sure, and says, “Humans are so interesting.” a single time in the film. These are nods to the real Ryuk, but the creators of this movie don’t care about the original character. Ryuk in this 2017 adaptation is totally different. Every time he shows up there is a whirlwind and darkness and usually some kind of electrical outage. He doesn’t hang around Light Turner all the time, and he certainly doesn’t live with him. Who knows what he’s doing between the scenes he’s not in? Is Willem Dafoe taking a coffee break? He’s just a “demon” in the story, even called so in official summaries of the film. Ryuk is not a bored death god. He has purpose, motivation to “play a game.” He doesn’t like Light Turner at all, and berates and manipulates him repeatedly. He is a flat typical Western demon here to plague a human being. He’s not a bored Shinigami looking for entertainment like in the manga. There’s no richness to his character, unless you call summoning a rainstorm every time you decide to appear a personality trait.
We don’t even get to see him full on, a production choice I don’t understand. The Japanese live action film Death Note did a great job of animating and showing Ryuk as he was in the manga and anime, floating somewhere over Light’s shoulder and whispering his running commentary. Why didn’t Netflix do something similar?
L was closest to the original character out of all of them. His deductive powers are strong, and he pinpoints the location of his adversary immediately. L rarely sleeps, and eats a lot of candy to keep himself going. He sits a certain way, though in the film it’s unclear as to why (in the anime series, he says it helps his concentration by 40%). In many ways this L lacks composure and control, just like the 2017 version of Light. L is calculated, but also childish. He freaks out when the FBI agents begin to drop like flies, another plot point torn from the original Death Note story. He has a confrontational outburst of rage at Light Turner’s house and gets put into a chokehold by Light’s father. This L does not have it together. The movie pushes L to that level, and turns him into a distraught child for the latter half of the film. This L is only 5% L.
It is unclear whether or not the character of Mia was modeled after Misa Amane. It’s unlikely at best. Misa Amane is a beautiful actress, Mia is a cheerleader who smokes a cigarette during athletic practice at school. Do high schoolers do that in Seattle? Misa Amane is obsessed with Yagami Light because of his perceived perfection. Mia is obsessed with the idea of the Death Note itself, and the power it has to “help” others. She implores Light Turner repeatedly to use the Note. Most likely, Mia was created to be her own character and to add drama to the film. She certainly does, but in an incoherent way. She believes that Light doesn’t know what he’s doing, and feels the need to “handle things” when he’s not. Ryuk points out to Light that he likes Mia more, but that’s not surprising. She’s more ready to kill, which is what 2017 Ryuk would want.
Death Note falls short in many categories, from characters to storyline to overall feel. It is supposed to be an examination of what “justice” really means. Even Shusuke Kaneko understood that when he directed the 2006 Japanese live action rendition of the story. He changed Yagami Light into a law student and took out a lot of the internal dialogue included in the manga and anime. Yet Kaneko still grasped that the primary sense of the story is about a moral question: Is it right to serially eliminate criminals? It’s the kind of conundrum that we see appear in shows like Dexter. Something in every person wants to root for evil people to disappear. Especially in this day and age, the questions that Death Note raises about eliminating crime are poignant for modern citizens. How much easier would it be if the bad guys just all disappeared? The original story of Death Note hashes and rehashes this question, through L, Yagami Light and his father, Misa Amane, and the Shinigami.
The 2017 film did not express this, though it tried to make it obvious to audiences. “We might be the bad guys,” Light Turner says to Mia at one point. His weak will wavers on the idea that maybe he’s doing something bad, and he’s not sure about it. If the intent there was to create that same sense of personal questioning the original story has, it fell flat. The Death Note manga, anime, and even the Japanese live action films all communicate that quandary in an engaging way. So go watch the original series on Netflix or find the manga at your favorite local book store. There’s less gore, stronger characters, and a Ryuk that will make you giggle.