When the Netflix live-action adaptation of the Japanese manga and anime series, Death Note, was first announced, I was excited. I was even more excited upon learning that Willem Dafoe had been cast as the spirit of death (a.k.a ‘shinigami’), Ryuk. However, I began to have misgivings when other cast members of the film were announced. After finally watching the film on Netflix a couple of weeks ago, I found that I was right to have been hesitant and was left feeling a bitter, disappointed taste in my mouth.
Despite the expectation of adaptations being true to the source material, most adaptations are not. Instead, adaptations often involve the filmmaker’s own original take, using the source material more as a loose guide rather than a script. The live-action adaptation of Death Note certainly abandoned the source material and as a result, created one very poorly received film. At least, I received it very poorly.
As a fan of the Japanese anime, which followed the original manga series very closely, it infuriated me the way each of the characters were depicted in the film. The two most brilliant and intriguing main characters, Light and L, were butchered to the point that it was laughable. What made the original story so captivating is the challenge in the cat and mouse chase between Light and L, which enthralled viewers as both characters were masterminds at their own game.
In the original source material, Light was always ten steps ahead of everyone else. His genius and mind-blowing planning skills is what made the entire series a thrill to read and watch. L, on the other hand was a rather cold, socially awkward detective, who could match Light’s genius with his own, able to see through Light’s plans. It was completely disheartening to witness the brilliance of these two characters being left out from the Netflix film. In it, Light was simply a whiny teenager who was only really ‘book smart’. L, was depicted as a detective who was highly emotional and easily allowed his emotions to get the better of him. Both depictions were the complete opposite of each character’s original personalities.
Even if the source material wasn’t to be followed, at the very least, the creators of the Netflix adaptation could have made Light and L a bit more complex as characters, exactly the way the Japanese live-action adaptations did; adaptations which didn’t follow the source material but yet conveyed an intriguing story through brilliant characterisation.
The moment in the film, when Light first came to meet Ryuk, was the moment I knew that the film was a failure. The way in which Light screamed at the sight of Ryuk was so overtly exaggerated that it was cringe-worthy. I couldn’t help but physically cringe. That wasn’t all. The other instance which truly ruined the film for me was the second L decided to take matters into his own hands and burst through Light’s family home, accusing him. The real L, the awkward detective with a shrewd mind, would never have succumbed to such reactive actions. Instead, he would have responded calculatively, like a predator stalking his prey.
Light and L were not the only characters to have not been properly portrayed. The character of Mia, modeled after the original character of Misa Amane in the manga and anime, was completely out of place in the film and to be quite honest, unnecessary other than to provide a romantic interest for Light. It was unsightly to watch the ‘romantic’ scenes between Light and Mia, which came across as two virgin teenagers who had finally found someone to ‘love’ them. In all honesty, the chemistry between the two was as flat as a board.
Ryuk, who in the manga and anime series played the role of an observer of the larger ‘game’ at hand, appeared to have his own agenda in the Netflix film. Going about things in ways that seemed to defeat the purpose of the actual ‘game’, Ryuk’s character was also completely different from the source material. The only positive is that Willem Dafoe certainly sounded a lot like Ryuk. In terms of Ryuk and the shinigami world, the film completely ignored explaining to its audience about the spirit world and the role that spirits of death play.
Another aspect that seems to showcase Hollywood’s talent of destroying foreign source material stems from the fact that the entire film wrapped up far too quickly. Each and every solid plot point was rushed through, making it difficult to truly appreciate the story. A key example was just how quick and easy it was for Light to ‘get’ to Watari, L’s surrogate father figure, and cause his untimely death. One would expect that a brilliant detective, working with police forces and special agencies the world over would arm himself with guardians and bodyguards who were a bit more aware and would not have got themselves caught.
Unfortunately though, the film did give a lot of screen time and pacing to the romance build up between Light and Mia, which was beyond uninteresting, unnecessary and solidified the adaptation as more of a high school teenage drama film than a legitimate detective thriller.
Of course, to deliver a convincing image of the all mighty power which the ‘Death Note’ book possesses, the Netflix film created far too many rules, more so than the source material, thereby over-complicating the basic rules of the ‘game’, causing me to lose interest in the film.
The film was the topic of controversy after fans dubbed the film another instance of Hollywood white-washing. In many ways this is true, especially in terms of the soundtrack playing throughout the film, which appeared to be 80s love songs more than heavy metal or rock, something that the Japanese live-action adaptation managed to pull off without a hitch.
Thinking of the Netflix adaptation as a whole, I can’t believe I sat down for nearly two hours and watched the entire film. It is bewildering that the creators had the manga, anime and THREE live-action films to draw from but still completely missed the point.
The Netflix live-action adaptation of Death Note was one of the worst pieces of film I have ever watched, something I thought I’d never say after Fantastic Four (2015) and the Japanese live-action adaptation of Attack On Titan. If you’re interested in the original anime story, check out my review here. I highly recommend giving this Netflix original a skip. Watch the Japanese live-action instead.