I don’t think I’m breaking any ground here in saying that the Death Note Netflix adaption was an utter failure and embarrassment to the source material. Also it would be even worse without knowing the source material, so while it’s not worth watching, apparently it is worth writing about. Death Note originally ran in Shonen Jump back in 2003 and follows protagonist Light Yagami after he discovers a notebook with the ability to kill anyone who’s full name and face he knows. Light uses this book as a way to purge evil from the world under the surname Kira, while the police try to stop him. It’s probably one of my favorite completed manga of all time but the movie was one of the least favorite movies I’ve ever seen.
I can’t think of a single good thing leading man Nat Wolff has been in, and the deviations from the manga don’t make sense to me. Shortening the length of Death Note, which features over 100 chapters in written form, to fit an hour and a half movie can explain some of the questionable plot decisions, but turning this from masterful intellectual thriller to teenage drama certainly can’t be explained by time constraints and it wasted the source material in doing so.
The characters are unlikable and dull, at least they were interesting in the manga and made smart/rational decisions, where in the movie they act worse than a cliche group of teenagers in a horror flick. Instead of any character development we get numerous gruesome over the top Final Destination like death scenes adding nothing. The mind games between intelligent characters placed in this unique scenario was what made the manga interesting, not the manner in which no-named criminals were killed.
We aren’t supposed to like Light, and by making him “likable/sympathetic” when he refuses to kill the FBI agents tracking him weakens his character. He also claims that he doesn’t have any choice at one point, but it’s stated right off the bat that if he doesn’t want to use the death note, he doesn’t have to, so his claim makes no sense. He’s a genius sociopath, an anti-hero, and through his warped sense of justice believes what he’s doing is for the greater good. In the movie he’s a hormonal angry teenager who kills 400 criminals, and it’s somehow not his fault? And he’s someone not evil? Also somehow killing 400 criminals tis enough of an impact to change the world.
In the manga, when Ryuk, a menacing death god, introduces himself to Light it actually serves as a way to showcase Light, the main character, instead, in the movie Light runs around his science class screaming, which is done for a lame comedic effect and to emphasize how scary Ryuk looks, which visually is already accomplished. In the manga, Light has already used the death note by the time he meets Ryuk, but in the movie he is taught how to use it. The only information told to the audience that Light is intelligent is that he does other people’s homework for them, but maybe this was done on purpose because Light is an idiot in the movie.
William Dafoe wasn’t a good Ryuk, he was more iconic in that car commercial where he played a devil than this. I can’t hate the special effect rendering of Ryuk, keeping him in the shadows and mainly using his red eyes to indicate he’s there was cleverly done, but the character’s motivations are essentially non-existent. First he asks Light to use it because “it’s more interesting when a human uses it,” which is what happens in the manga, but notifies Light that if he doesn’t want to use the note to not touch it for 7 days and it’ll pass on to someone else. Later on he threatens Light to continue to use it though, shouldn’t it be a non-issue when it could just pass on to someone else? Also Ryuk barely ate those apples, and it’s a minor detail I know, but that annoyed me to no end because it was such an easy detail to fix.
The rules for using the death note are all over the place as well, what a surprise right?!, where there was only ~6 minutes of realistic control of a person once their name is written in the notebook, the movie decided to allow an absurd and overpowered 2 day total control of a person’s actions once their name is written down. It essentially gets Light out of all trouble during the conclusion of the movie in the most anti-climatic way. Being able to burn the page that a person’s name was written down acts as a loophole to save that person from death, but couldn’t there be more than one person’s name written down on the ENTIRE page? How can this only be done for one person then? It was a loophole placed in as a half-assed attempt to raise the stakes when Light’s name was written in the notebook.
The romance between our two leads Mia and Light comes out of nowhere and stays prominent when it really shouldn’t have. We’re supposed to believe that these high schoolers fall deeply in love with one another because they both enjoy killing criminals? Light murdered his high school bully and then he brags about it to some cheerleader he’s never talked to, AND THEY HIT IT OFF. It’s a modern retelling of Romeo and Juliet, but with an evil notebook that kills people! Light kills people and feels nothing, but somehow he’s able to fall in love with his classmate and still care for his father. In the manga Light is a sociopath who believes he’s better than everyone and that only he can bring peace to the world. In the movie he has emotions only when dictated by the plot.
Mia is pro killing because…she likes horror movies and as a cheerleader no one listened to her. Those are the only reasons given to us, and they’re garbage. At least we can sort of understand Light’s reasoning, in a deviation from the manga his mother was killed by a mobster who got away with it. This caused Light to hate the justice system and criminals even more so I guess. I mean Light’s motivations are still weak and an unnecessary difference from the source material, but it’s better than BECAUSE NO ONE LISTENED TO ME. Aren’t cheerleaders the most influential people in high school? At least in movies I believe they are.
Mia is warped from a misguided worshipper of Light to love interest and side villain in the movie. Also Mia outsmarts Light a couple times, but he’s a genius obviously from being able to do multiple people’s homework in the beginning! Isn’t she just a cheerleader? She loves Light, for no reason shown other than he’s the protagonist, but she loves killing more, also for no reason shown. Mia’s role was “expanded” in the movie, but there was no depth and her end game was laughably short-sided.
L is almost worse than Light, and I know the actor is better than this because he’s great in the show Atlanta. He goes from robotic to psychotic. He remains relatively loyal to the L character upon introduction, more so than any of the characters, but then becomes an emotional wreck when his 2nd in command Watari goes missing. L would never become such a one note angry character hellbent on revenge, but that’s exactly what happens. L is one of my favorite characters because of his calm yet quirky demeanor, strong sense of moral justice, and ingenuity solving cases, however, he’s reduced to an angry baby in the movie. Also, Watari was using his real name! He doesn’t have a last name? In the manga Watari is obviously an alias, like L is obviously not L’s real name, because Kira can kill people by knowing their full name and face, but Watari apparently only has one name! The whole 2 day mind control shenanigans was so unnecessary, why not just ask Watari to kill L? Why even look for L’s real name if Watari works? Furthermore, why would Light be unwilling to kill the FBI agents, but be willing to kill L no problem? Why does he want to spare Watari when he and L are guilty of essentially the same thing, trying to track him down? These questions remain unanswered.
Both L and Light are equally matched intelligence wise in the manga, with their views on justice at opposite spectrums. Their mental cat and mouse games are what made the manga so interesting. Now I understand it’s tougher to portray this without thought bubbles, like in the manga, or narration, like in the anime, but the movie starts off with narration! Why not use it throughout the movie? Why did L take off his mask if he believed 100% that Kira was Light? Why show your face to a guy that can kill you if he knows your face?! In the manga he confronts Light and only suspects him at a low percentage, but wishes to work with him because of Light’s intelligence and closeness to the case. Here he confronts Light and accuses him of being Kira, which Light doesn’t deny, just because he’s angry and… they wanted this iconic shot between the two characters? There was no point to the scene, nothing changes from this confrontation.
The convoluted ending, first off Light panicking and confessing to being Kira to L was so out of place, to be saved by some random person who worshipped Kira, seemed like a cop out, and that’s just the start! Light – “Let’s run away together and never use the death note again!” He said after being surrounded by cops on a ferris wheel. Mia then steals the death note…I thought she was supposed to be clever? This triggers the ferris wheel to malfunction and collapse because apparently if she steals the death note only then would she die, even though her name was written down so her fate should have been sealed within 2 days. Light writing that he would “safely falls into the water” doesn’t make falling from the height survivable all of a sudden! His page miraculously falling out into the burning trash can, which saves him twice!, should be impossible as well! I don’t care if he wrote it down when explaining Mia’s death! He shouldn’t be able to break the laws of physics. He also planned further by writing down the names of a doctor, who is a known pedophile but also still allowed to work in a hospital no problem, to save him from drowning. He also had someone pick up the fallen death note and continue his work killing criminals while he was in an induced coma, thereby, having the perfect alibi. But he was only suspected to be Kira by L…who was arrested for going off the rails, why did he need an alibi again? So his master plan was to get chased by L, get saved by some random person, get betrayed by the love of his life, defy gravity, burn only 1 page of the death note with his name on it, fake his own death through mindless minions, and then confess to his dad…the person in charge of the investigation after L.
Light implies that the true evil is Ryuk for giving this death note to humans, but Light voluntarily wrote people’s names in the death note to “change the world.” I think trying to blame Ryuk for the series of events was the director trying to make Light more sympathetic, but he’s an awful character anyway so it didn’t work. I hope his dad arrests him. Also, the fact that they teased L potentially writing Light’s name on the spare piece of death note at the end was ridiculous, L is supposed to be on the opposite spectrum of Light, he’s against killing, no matter the reason. His goal should be to arrest Light, violence was never his way…although in the movie he uses a gun. *sigh* L’s character in the movie is similar in in letter alone.
To date, I can’t think of a single live action movie adaption of an anime or manga that has been successful , and what makes it so frustrating is that it should be possible. I would say comic books and manga are similar, and look what Marvel has done, 4 billion dollars and counting! It wasn’t a smash hit success right off the bat either, I still remember the Daredevil movie, but then 5 years later Ironman came out and started the golden age of Marvel. The source material was respected and the adaptions reimagined the story and took it to the next level.
It always seems impossible until it’s done. All it’ll take is one successful live action adaption, but with the disappointing Ghost in the Shell and now dreadful Death Note, audiences will have to make due with 2D. I would recommend the Death Note anime on Netflix for those interested in dark psychological thrillers, otherwise there’s nothing to see here.