Death Note (Netflix 2017): A Review Concerning Storytelling
The Curse of Adaptation
On this occasion I’ll avoid the usual teaser paragraph before the disclaimer and just tell you upfront this article contains spoilers about the Netflix Death Note movie and the other live-action adaptations. If you know nothing about Death Note, feel free to click away.
Okay, everybody else, let’s start by addressing one of the most popular objections to the Netflix remake of Death Note. You probably already know what it is and have had your fill of people talking about it, so take comfort in the fact that we won’t stay here long. I just need to make the reference for the purpose of greater context.
Death Note is not the first film taken from international source material to be accused of being bastardized by Hollywood. I’m sure you can name a few off the top of your head, and so can I. The truth, however, is that the practice isn’t exclusive to “Western” studios. Remember when India turned Christopher Nolan’s Memento into Ghajini or the Park Chan-wook film Oldboy into Zinda?
In the context of Death Note, however, many fingers are pointing to what has become known as Hollywood “whitewashing,” or altering properties to make them more “approachable” for American audiences — a process which usually includes casting films with primarily white actors as leads. Many argue that this is the case with the Death Note remake, and a number of those voices were prepared to condemn the film entirely for this reason alone.
In the end, however, one has to consider whether such disdain is based solely on decisions like casting or in part because there’s a demonstrated tendency for such changes to result in subpar movies. While not putting aside the possibility of the first option entirely, I’m choosing to focus on arguing the latter, since Hollywood has shown all too often that these adjustments, genre differences aside, mean you’re more likely to get The Last Airbender than The Departed.
The real question, though, is this: When it comes to respecting authenticity, which qualities of the original work are truly indispensable?
I mean, would Dragonball: Evolution have been a better movie with an all-Asian cast? The honest answer is no. There were too many problems with the script and its execution. That film also suffered because no major studio anywhere had yet tried to make a live-action feature adaptation. Death Note does not carry the burden of not having live-action versions to reference or, to be fair, assume the pain of translating an idea as over-the-top as Dragonball.
By comparison the task of adapting it seems pretty straightforward.
In essence, Death Note is a psychological thriller with a touch of the supernatural thrown in. It’s a cat-and-mouse game of constant one-upmanship that pits genius-level minds against one another, all the while exploring the intricacies of societal justice, morality, loyalty, and the nature of power. While it has its roots in Japanese manga and anime, Death Note is not strictly a Japanese-centered narrative, and never has the depth of its core concept been bolstered or pigeonholed by rigid adherence to any particular race or culture as a mechanism for driving the story.
This observation seeks to address the red herring at the outset so more focused minds can better attend to a different type of discussion — one that involves the art of storytelling and what happens when the spirit of a narrative gets compromised by studios putting aside what truly makes a concept like Death Note effective in the first place.
The Pitfalls of Branding
The concept behind Death Note is extremely well-developed and contains so many unique elements that it can’t really be remade without taking on the brand’s name or, at the very least, openly acknowledging any derivatives as being such. (Unless you consider how The Hunger Games worked out, but I won’t relight that torch.) In my opinion, the Netflix film tries to serve conflicting agendas - namely, reaping the benefits of the brand while trying to discard the qualities that define the brand.
Don’t misunderstand me. There’s nothing wrong with telling a different story as long as you capture the spirit of the original concept correctly (e.g., the film sequel Death Note: Light Up the NEW World, which not only had a fresh plot but introduced almost an entire cast of new characters). This sort of faithfulness also allowed the writers of the live-action television series to get away with several of their own twists within the context of the original Death Note story (e.g., killing off L when and how they did). When you go against too many aspects of what make the foundational concept function, however, the property ceases to be what it is at heart.
Netflix's Death Note seriously flirts with that separating line and survives only because the underlying concept is strong and distinct. The themes and subplots of the original Death Note story are so numerous that you can lose, alter, and introduce many characters and events without completely destroying the overall effect, so long as you get the key aspects right. Previous versions acknowledge and respect this and as a result highlight two significant missteps in the newest entry.
The first involves the absence of the time necessary to develop the defining themes and tone of Death Note. The second concerns the lack of balance in the primary conflict between Light and L.
One essential way other adaptations honored the source material was by allowing the narrative sufficient time to evolve. Plot threads and character arcs as complex as those in Death Note require time to yield the best results.
The first two live-action Japanese films, which cover the primary story of the Death Note series, respected this requirement enough to split the story in half to allow for a longer overall runtime (almost four and a half hours). While the attempt didn’t capture the level of detail present in the manga [about 108 chapters across 12 (or 13, depending) volumes] or the anime series (37 approximately half-hour episodes), it still gave room for numerous plot twists and the evolution of character personalities. The live-action television series surpassed the movies by offering 11 episodes with almost 9 hours of content.
The Netflix film tries to best these other attempts with a runtime of an hour and forty minutes.
I’ll just let that sink in for a few seconds.
Not quite there yet.
Okay, that’s enough.
When one considers that this is the same film industry that thought it was a good plan to stretch The Hobbit, an approximately 300-page novel, into an almost 9-hour movie trilogy (and we saw how that turned out), you can’t help but question the butchery of a story like Death Note. I can understand the desire to cash in on a bankable piece of established intellectual property (also known as greed), but this is the sort of disparate attention to the basics of effective storytelling that makes people wary of these sorts of projects from the beginning. The practice still holds even when certain narratives have already generated their own sizable audience. Some stories get the royal treatment while others get the short end of the stick.
An Absence of Wits and Wills
With any good thriller or detective story, the audience needs to be engaged through a logical flow of events. Death Note incorporates elements from both genres and uses the intellectual clash between Light and L to build necessary tension. For proper effect, the audience should feel each is a match for the other and often question who should win.
In Netflix’s Death Note, however, aside from the fact that Light runs an operation doing homework for his classmates and introduces the name Kira to make people think he’s operating out of Japan, you never sense his evolved mental prowess, let alone get any indication he’s a mastermind. He also isn't all that confident or independently capable. Most of the traits of unwavering resolve and determination lie with his girlfriend Mia. Unfortunately, she likewise never demonstrates what anyone would call unrivaled genius.
In this version, even L seems less dynamically deductive, despite his eccentricities. He’s not about discovering and examining obscure clues, cunning strategy, subterfuge, or meticulous analysis. In fact, the film presents his intellect as almost mystical and esoteric. The idea seems to be that there’s no need to follow his thoughts because you wouldn’t understand them anyway. This approach doesn't establish a level playing field between Light and L, and supporting either becomes difficult as a result.
While convenient for condensing the story, such changes take away from what makes Death Note so captivating.
Wanting To Be Something Else
With all that said, the movie does a few noteworthy things that could have allowed it to hold its own.
I feel the best opportunity came with how the movie portrays L. He has always been an intriguing character, but Lakeith Stanfield’s interpretation opened up a new dimension. While Stanfield mimics many of the characteristics fans love, he also introduces several that come as a surprise. I didn't expect to see L chase down Light with a gun or contemplate using the Death Note out of anger and rage, but in this version it happens. Not only that, but these actions makes sense based on who L is here and who he could have understandably been in any prior incarnation.
As hinted at in the previous section, this L comes across as someone who, on some level, believes no one can touch him. His cautious nature does not imprison him in the shadows. He walks in public with half his face exposed and only sparingly communicates from behind his iconic symbol.
This L’s brazen confidence seems to give him a greater god complex than Light, and when he realizes he’s fallible, his descent is that much more damning. The turn doesn’t make Light a hero or L a villain. It does, however, introduce a different dynamic between the two that the movie could have built on. The film simply doesn't give itself the time and refuses to make Light just as complex to balance the scales.
Canonically, Light could have achieved this end, but the script chose to share his defining character traits with Mia. As this incarnation’s Misa Amane, Mia essentially retains her role as the second Kira. She doesn't, however, receive her own Death Note or see her unique personality quirks combined with Light’s already well-rounded persona. Instead, the film divides Light’s character and basically makes Mia the villain and Light the unsuspecting victim of her betrayal. Their romantic relationship never exhibits the type of cohesion that could pose a credible threat to L. In fact, it actually makes them weaker as a unit.
The script, however, forces them to be L’s match and consequently undermines his abilities without adequate justification. While the Death Note brand demands an equilibrium between the two sides, this particular story does not earn that balance.
The Netflix version of Death Note is not a bad movie. It’s just disappointing if you're familiar with the source material. From cavalier construction to questionable execution, it represents a wasted opportunity to bring an incredible story to a wider audience. Its flaws are frustratingly more visible in light of other live-action adaptations that show what it could have been. The models were there for it to learn from, and it didn’t have to reinvent an already effective wheel.
This movie is Death Note in name, but it feels like it wants to be something else in spirit. The true reason motivating that desire is anyone’s guess, and many have strong views regarding the matter. Despite whatever might be the reality of the situation behind the scenes, one sentiment emerges clearly from fans:
Death Note deserved better.