It was almost inevitable that Netflix’s movie adaptation of Death Note – one of the most popular manga and anime series of all time, I don’t think it would be exaggerating to say – was going to be a bit divisive. It’s one of those things that people are spending a lot of time being angry about lately: an Americanised, so-called ‘whitewashed’ version of a Japanese property, something that can’t possibly be as good as the original.
Let’s just get this out of the way. Netflix’s Death Note (I might start just calling it ‘The Movie’, or ‘DN:TM’ for short) is not as good as the Death Note series. Of course it isn’t. It was never going to be. That story was one of the best-told stories of the genre by most standards, even if the second half is widely considered a bit shakier than the first. A lot of the criticism that was directed at the film even before it was released went along the lines of ‘that’s not Light’, or ‘Ryuk would never do that’, or ‘L isn’t black’, and this is all true if you look at the film in the context of the earlier work. So here’s what I’d like to do. Let’s look at DN:TM without thinking too hard about what it doesn’t do as well as its (loose) source material, shall we? I mean, all of those criticisms are predicated on the idea that the film has to do things the same way as the series it’s based on: ‘that’s not the same Light’, ‘Ryuk as we know him would never do that’, ‘L isn’t black in the original series‘. Premise number one for criticism of a work: there is nothing outside the text, as Barthes says. Naturally, we judge works within the wider artistic, social and political context that they’re created and distributed in, and that’s only fair, but I don’t think it’s fair to judge DN:TM against a series which I don’t think it was ever intended to faithfully adapt. I see this film as more of a reimagining using a couple of similar elements to kick off a plot that really has absolutely nothing to do with the original. It’s like judging The Lion King against Hamlet: sure, they have similar story elements, but nobody’s claiming that Lion King sucks because the original Hamlet was a Danish prince and not, in fact, a lion.
Hopefully we’re clear, then: I don’t see Netflix’s Death Note as a sequel, nor even really an adaptation. It’s a totally separate work in its own right that just happens to have some similar ideas going on. It’s a story about an American kid who probably isn’t as smart as he thinks he is and a childlike, unbalanced detective, rather than a story about a Japanese prodigy and an eccentric but efficacious hunter of criminals. Let’s not try to claim that these are the same characters, rather than totally new ones with the same (or similar) names. If this still isn’t clear, imagine a slightly alternate universe for a moment:
In this alternate universe, Star Wars: A New Hope comes out. It’s the same year, 1977, and it’s the exact same movie, starring Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker and Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Nothing about this alternate universe is different, except for the fact that A New Hope has been heavily marketed as the sequel to Citizen Kane.
‘Well, this film is terrible!’ proclaim the critics, although it is still the exact same, really rather good, film that was released in our own universe.
‘None of these characters are anything like the ones from Citizen Kane!‘ exclaim the reviewers, who are entirely correct because the characters are actually completely different, and totally fine in their own right.
‘Citizen Kane was set in America, but this one’s in space!’ decry the film buffs, making a point which is entirely accurate but not really a legitimate target of disdain.
I’m doing this to death, so let’s stop talking about why comparing this movie to the manga or anime is basically fruitless and just look at the movie as if it were completely unrelated, shall we? Let’s pretend that the manga never existed, or perhaps that this film was never billed as any kind of relation to its source material and instead of a notebook Light uses an old Nokia phone and Ryuk’s not a death god but Donald Trump and L is Gary Coleman. It’s just a movie on its own, nothing to do with anything that came before.
Okay, so the film. Guys, it’s not the worst. It really isn’t. Alright, so it’s not the best, but I’d say it qualifies as a fun, schlocky little horror flick with a slight teen romance gimmick and a ‘power corrupts’ theme that it doesn’t quite get around to exploring fully. It’s no worse than that.
Nat Wolff is actually pretty good as this version of Light, an American student who’s a bit of an outcast and spends all his time doing other people’s homework while hanging around near people doing sports, despite apparently not liking sports. He starts out as a bit of a loser, to be honest, and his reaction to meeting Death God Ryuk – who looks a bit odd, but is voiced by Willem Dafoe, which you really just can’t argue with – establishes this Light as a slightly cowardly kid who gets way out of his depth in record time.
He uses the eponymous Death Note, a book with many rules that don’t have time to get covered but the most important of which is ‘the human whose name is written in this note shall die’, first to take out a school bully, then to end the guy who killed his mother (oh, yeah, his mother’s dead in the movie). While the anime’s Light Yagami always seemed fully in control of what he was doing, once he’d fully grasped the power he held, the film’s Light Turner just never quite sells that he actually understands what he’s becoming, even as he tries to set himself up as justice-god Kira. That’s not a criticism, by the way. I actually quite like that this Light always feels like he’s trying just a little too hard to come across as the genius he wishes he was.
Speaking of genii, Lakeith Stanfield as the film’s take on super-detective L has clearly studied the source material, but doesn’t try too hard to make his L exactly the same. This one’s much more impulsive, more prone to outbursts, although that might just be because Light kills his right-hand man and possible best friend Watari. That moment is another nice example of out-of-depthness, actually: Light intended to spare Watari, citing that he wouldn’t kill innocents, but underestimates Ryuk and the Death Note. I’m not quite sure how he managed to do it anyway, since he’s clearly shown writing just ‘Watari’ and the book must require a full name, since otherwise he’d just be able to write ‘L’ and wouldn’t need to find his opponent’s real name, but maybe we can write that off as a rule change that the movie didn’t fully explain.
I can’t claim to be too keen on Margaret Qualley’s Mia Sutton, who nominally seems as if she might be based on the series’ Misa Amane but actually seems to be more of a composite or totally original character. Mia gets some genuinely surprising moments when she comes close to outmaneuvering both Light and L, and even seems as if she might be the movie’s answer to the truly sociopathic version of Light seen in the source material at times. I just don’t quite believe that she’d turn so easily from a regular high school girl into… well, into a Kira close to the one in the manga, I suppose, but then I have to wonder why I’d accept that Light would and not her. Something just rubs me up the wrong way about her. Maybe that’s deliberate, though, given that she’s almost more of a primary antagonist than Ryuk or L turn out to be in DN:TM.
This is a film with an American sense of character and style, for sure. In fact, its story only really works in the framework of American culture, with all the differences that an American vision of high-school has from a Japanese one. I almost want to say that’s to its credit: simply transposing the story, a culturally Japanese story, word-for-word into America, would be jarring and weird (and for that reason some of the similar criticism of the recent Ghost in the Shell movie might be more justified than when directed at Death Note), and it’s probably to that end that DN:TM ended up as a reimagining rather than what you might call an adaptation. It just takes a bit of adjusting to accept that that’s not a bad thing in and of itself, I guess.
In short, if you were a really big fan of Death Note before, you might just have to do a bit of willful forgetting before watching the movie. If you try to watch it like it’s truly part of the same franchise, you can’t help but compare, and that’ll lessen your enjoyment of what is, in a vacuum, at the very least a reasonably entertaining movie.