by Kyle Ratsch
The Netflix Death Note adaptation was almost good.
Refer to my previous article, or this one, for our full opinions on adaptations. In short, I think the only reason to make the Death Note adaptation was to bring the philosophy of the show to a new audience. According to that premise, and on a strict 0 or 1 rating scale, they did succeed. However, I think they could have done much better. Beware, spoilers ahead.
First, I want to give the filmmakers some credit. I value encouragement and constructive criticism over mindless insults and emotionally-based qualitative insults, such as, “I didn’t like it, so it sucks.”
They retained some of the cat-and-mouse elements of the animated series that made each episode so tense. In the spirit of L and Light trying to outsmart each other, we have Mia and Light outright lying to each other for control of the Death Note, and several of the surprises in their interactions are not pointed out by the filmmakers, but must be pieced together by the audience (which I think is a sign of good writing).
Initially, when Mia comes back to Light after suggesting they kill his father, she apologizes to Light and asks if they can resume their killing spree, and when the conversation doesn’t seem to be going her way she blurts out, “I love you!” I thought this was cheap teen-drama at first (a common criticism of the movie) but seeing how quickly she enacts a plan to steal the Death Note from Light says to me that it was an outright lie, and the fact that I wrote it off as cheap teen-drama for a few days before coming to this conclusion speaks positively to me.
On the other side of the coin, and on the top of the ferris wheel, Light makes it known to Mia that he wrote her name in the Death Note, but he’d be willing to burn it so they can make a getaway together and live happily ever after. Again, I rolled my eyes until it was pointed out to me that only one name could be burned from the Note, and Light’s name was already in it. This begs the question, did Light ever intend to save Mia at all?
This small example pales in comparison to much of the anime, but I still found it to be strong. Well done.
The essence of Death Note questioning justice and morality is in the film in small doses, such as in Light’s conversations with Mia, his father, and the principle of his school. One of my favorite aspects of Death Note’s anime was the distinct philosophical sides it created, where people could justifiably say, “I side with Light” or “I side with L”. Even though Light is written as the antagonist, to some people he’s still the hero. Back in the movie, when Mia suggests killing people from some random website he shows discernment by saying that there’s no way he could verify if any of the claims were true or not.
I also feel that Mia’s character felt pretty authentic, if not necessarily deep or complex. Even though it’s never explicitly stated, Mia’s character exudes pain and deep hurt, and I feel her urgency to use the Death Note for “justice” and revenge more authentically than Light’s, especially when she suggests killing people from the website.
I feel that the first and third acts of the movie are pretty strong, and the second act had me genuinely unable to guess what would come next.
However, I think a lot of the anime’s strengths were lost in the translation to an American movie, and I wonder if some of it was cultural.
For example, the new depiction of L maintained a lot of his character’s core elements, but he felt more reckless, more emotional, and more arrogant. I wonder if the anime’s portrayal of L would not be believable to American audiences, who are swimming in a sea of morally gray characters in popular media and absolutely loving it. I also wonder if American audiences don’t really want smart crime thrillers, but prefer (or pay more money for) action-packed roller coasters. See below.
Netflix’s Death Note feels more like a disaster movie to me than a crime thriller, and that stylistic choice disarms the mountains of tension that the anime was able to build (and I think tension is critical for effective storytelling). Both iterations showcase that humans should not have this sort of power, but it’s handled in very different ways. In the third act of Netflix’s iteration the lid is blown off of the top, and Light scrambles to escape L and outwit Mia. We get a Final Destination-esque ferris-wheel crash and Light ends up in the hospital. Much of this was planned, but it feels more like you’re watching the situation spiral out of control, like in “Chronicle”, or sub-plots in kid’s TV shows where a character get a wild power, but with a convenient bonk to the head he realizes the destruction he’s causing, and turns the power in order for the greater good. I’ve already seen this plot. I’m not interested. (One could argue that his overall plan is to never turn in the Death Note, which makes my point moot, but I spent most of the third act rolling my eyes with frustration at the repeated theme, and detracted from my experience).
What I was interested in, was Light Yagami (not Turner) holding on to his power with a tight fist and outsmarting every contender as he slowly builds his new nearly crime-free world, and not giving up until the last second when he is killed. Watching Yagami maintain a cool head even when he’s seconds away from being caught and often lie convincingly and boldly while sitting on the razor’s edge was fascinating.
Yet, in the American adaptation, the first time L confronts Light he loses his temper and basically admits that he’s Kira by his lack of composure. Light Yagami is a calculating mastermind who is charismatic, bold, and powerful, while Light Turner comes across as unstable and emotional. Turner definitely feels raw and authentic, but I didn’t feel the “oh no what if he gets caught” tension, and the beauty of watching carefully crafted plans unfold (with the exception of the final scene). It almost seemed like Light Turner had two faces, one of emotion and arrogance (I actually enjoyed his scream at first seeing Ryuk. Fight me) and the one where the script-writers remembered their source-material. Light Turner rarely felt like he was as smart as they told you he was.
Case and point. If Light Turner, the genius his homework tries to tell you that he is, knows about a rule where he can burn a page of the Death Note to prevent a death, he probably should’ve been carrying a lighter with him. Or a match. Something. I was frustrated for every second of Light’s chase scene after you find out that his name is written in the Death Note. Frankly, I would’ve had a lighter. I could’ve even thrown it in the kitchen fire as a national detective was chasing through a restaurant. Or after the Kira worshipper knocks L out. I know that he had written on the page that it would fall into the barrel way earlier, but this is a criticism of the scriptwriter, not the character.
Also, following the theme of destroying tension, I despised all of the music choices for this film. Especially in the third act. I understand that the lyrics depict irony for Mia and Light’s relationship, but I don’t want to chuckle with comical irony when I’m watching both main characters fall out a ferris wheel. I want my heart pounding with fear and excitement. It felt schizophrenic and destroyed every ounce of immersion and tension that was built up in the previous chase-scene. No. Just no.
While I feel that this iteration of Death Note was not nearly as bad as I anticipated it to be (I’m jaded about remakes), and I will happily say that many scenes pleasantly surprised me. More people are talking about Death Note and I’m enjoying that, but I don’t think the new Death Note fans experienced the same thrill that I did upon first watching the story, which is a bummer.
According to my personal scale:
1 - Trash
2 - Average
3 - Meaningful strengths that don’t make up for weaknesses.
4 - Very good
5 - Exceptional
I give Netflix’s Death Note a 3 out of 5.
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