Netflix’s Death Note: An Adaption That Maybe Doesn’t Get What It’s Adapting

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Death Note (2017)

Directed by Adam Wingard

Starring – Nat Wolff, Margaret Qualley, Lakeith Stanfield, Paul Nakauchi, Shea Whigham, Willem Dafoe

I’am a fan of the Death Note franchise. It came to the States just at the right time when I was a angst ridden teenager in high school, who thought he was smarter than everyone else. I was excited when Netflix announced it was going to make its own adaption of the series, but will admit now that as time went on I grew more nervous that it wouldn’t get what the series was about.

(Though Williem Dafoe as Ryuk seemed so perfect)

So now that it has been released, how does it match up?

Poorly, very poorly.

Does that mean that I didn’t enjoy it all? Well That is a little bit more complicated to explain.

For those who dont know, the original Death Note anime and manga by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata , followed Light Yagami, who comes across a death note. A book that will take the life of anyone whose name is written in it. This begins a story of moral quandaries and the overarching themes of how far should good people go to rid them selves of the bad, as he takes on the persona of the criminal killing figure Kira. He faces off against the police who themselves deal with the fact that the public shows growing support for the subject of Kira’s killings, against his own father, a detective with the police, and the world famous but mysterious L. L serves as his primary antagonist for the majority of the series. Light is assisted by super model idol, Misa, who worships him as her one true savior and love. She has a death note of her own. And finally in the background you have Ryuk who is a death god. Ryuk dropped the death note Light uses into the human world to be entertained.

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Netflix’s Death Note is a shockingly detached from what it is based on. I didn’t expect for it to be a one for one plot match for the anime or manga (I live with the rule that if you are going to reboot or adapt something and make it exactly the same, what is the point), but the changes they make are so drastic in some cases that I forgot I was watching a Death Note movie. It has the characters but the changes are so beyond the source, that it actually distracts occasionally when I snap back to fact that it is based on something.

That shouldn’t happen when the people they are going to try and primarily bring in are people who enjoy the franchise prior to this.

This version of Death Note is a love story. Yes a love story.

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You see this story’s Light (Light Turner played by Nat Wolff) isn’t the cool of thought and manipulative character he is in the source material. No he is a emo teen that spends his time getting beat up by bullies. Using his intelligence he does the homework for his fellow students and spends all his time emo loner status at sporting events at his high school. Weirdly that change I don’t mind. It makes the character more contemporary. If he was still a teen able to practically predict the behavior of everyone around him, it would be annoying and I think most viewers would feel disconnected. In anime those traits work, in a live action American film I’m not sure it would have flowed well.

But it is his personality mixed with another character named Mia (played by Margaret Qualley). She is his partner, his girlfriend, and even serving as his driving force to become Kira (because of their dynamic I wasn’t sure if she was suppose to be series favorite Misa or not). It was off putting. Instead of being a young man who see’s the world and its problems, and decides to use  powerful tool to change it at first for the better good and later to become more or less a mortal god. Light is the horny teenager who goes along with it because its how he and his girlfriend spend most of their time with each other. She even comes up with one of the more iconic plans (and my favorite) in the series. The movie’s Light waits until the story is nearly done to finally read all the death note rules, that’s how little he cares (it is implied. For all we know, he never really did the rules of the book that lets him control life). Because of this, it paints Mia far more competent than super genius Light.

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A few side characters are still present. I like Shea Whigham as Light’s father and Paul Nakauchi as L’s caretaker and assistant Watari. If you like Light’s mom or little sister, you will be sad. His mother dies before the movie and his sister never existed. Light lives with his police detective father only.

With that said we now come to the great characters of this movie.

Ryuk and L.

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The movie’s L is fun and carries the signature mannerisms and behaviors well, while adding a few of his own. Actor Lekeith Stanfield gives the character emotion and a unique flare.  He comes off like the off beat and peculiar thinker he does in the franchise. The times when he speaks, I felt invested. His confrontations with Light in the early and middle portions of the film are tense and fun. His interactions with light’s father (named James in this adaption), is what it would feel like for a grizzled detective to have to deal with a person who seems way out there. Throughout the film this L is a delight until it reaches towards the end and he becomes as much of a chore to deal with as a adapted character like the rest.

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Willem Dafoe as Ryuk is the godsend of this movie. Not only portrayal wise but plot wise. The movie plays fast and heavy with the idea Ryuk is a manipulator. The Death Note itself even has a warning written and covered in blood in one of its margins that says to not trust Ryuk. Paired with the fact the movie constantly paints him into shadows, lurking with only glowing eyes and his silhouette showing. He makes his presence known by a cackle that feels carried on the wind. Like there is danger far away, stalking the characters.

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There is a world building scene in which Light browses a history book, and sees various depictions of Ryuk eating apples over the course of feudal Japans history. The only reason it works is because the film does not go about it heavy handily. There is no large exposition dump, just him flipping through pages and reading.

This next bit will be spoilers, YEE HAVE BEEN WARNED!

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Like I said, Mia is the driving force behind Light’s actions beyond the first 2 murders he commits. Unlike the source Light, this one is quick to want to ditch the Death Note after a few speeches from his dad, several fears that arise involving the authorities, and constant warnings from Ryuk that Light better be more interesting. It is through Mia’s actions and coercing that Kira continues to operate. This causes a bit of a interesting turn of events. Ryuk informs Light that he fully wants Mia to be the new owner, a role he behaves like Mia doesn’t want despite her mentioning the fact she only matters now that she is involved with Kira. I like this idea. It ties to Misa very well or just the general human sentiment of wanting to be worth something to the world. The last bit of the movie is a desperate battle of wits between Light, Mia, and L. L’s persecution of Kira is driven up due to the death of Watari, that Light tried to prevent but Mia carried through anyway. L goes so far as to chase Light down with gun through the streets of Seattle… which feels immensely out of place given the character traits he shows earlier in the film. Some may say grief drove him there but I don’t buy it. It feels like the writer just wanted more action in the film.

I will say that for what I imagine is the first planned movie of a set (this one ends on a cliff hanger that I don’t want to spoil), Mia’s sudden change and Light having to finally prove that he is the genius they spend a good chunk of the movie telling us he is, was actually very thrilling. A genius that tells far too many other characters the fact he is Kira. Mia, L, his father.  I know that is only 3, but given the secrecy that the series character operated with, and the secrecy the situation demands, this change was a little too much. Also his eventual outwitting of Mia feels very comical and I’m not sure how much of that was on purpose.

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Overall I think the film was enjoyable if you watch it as a dark comedy and thriller. Something I think the movie itself kinda gets. A lot of jokes get delivered and even the credits contain some charming cast bloopers. Would I say watch it if you are a Death Note purist? no. But if you are a fan of the source or coming in brand new, give it a watch. There were some pretty fun moments to be had. I feel like taking what they learned making this one, a truly good sequel could be made. A sequel I would actually look forward to seeing.

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…If the mixed reviews don’t stop Netflix from making it.

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Tai Radway spends most of his time writing letters about how much he misses Gravity Falls and playing World Of Warcraft. When he can find the time between raids, he acts as the Editor-in-Chief of Nerdier Tides. You can Follow him at @Trad27.

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