Thoughts on the Netflix Death Note Live Action Film

I know this topic has already been done to death on Disqus, but oh well. Netflix, which started out life as a popular streaming service of TV shows and films, has moved into the business of producing shows and films as well. Thus, it has produced its own live action adaptation of Death Note, which recently screened. It has, unsurprisingly, been universally panned. Regardless, having seen the anime (including the recap films), read the manga, and watched all the other live action adaptations, it was only natural that I should watch this too. Thus, I offer my two cents.

While it was an entertaining film (because Death Note is such a fascinating concept), it was an awful adaptation. For one thing, it is set in America, not Japan. The protagonist is Light Turner, not Light Yagami. He is white, as are the vast majority of characters. This has led to claims of ‘whitewashing’. However, unlike some people on the political spectrum, I am not obsessed enough with race, skin colour, and identity politics to take this objection seriously. Since the film is set in America, it is only natural that most of the characters should be white. Also, L is now black. I suppose the producers are also guilty of ‘blackwashing’. The only sensible objection here is that of simple unfaithfulness to the source material.

Let us turn, then, to the adaptational qualities of this Death Note film. Given that it had to compress 37 episodes into one hour and forty minutes, it was inevitable that it would take liberties with the source material. The basic elements of the plot are the same. Light finds the Death Note, meets Ryuk, and embarks on an attempt to kill the wicked and thus become God of a new world. However, the brilliant detective, L, is there to try to stop him. The result is radically different, though. Both L and Light are still alive at the end of the film. However, the real problem I have is that this film tampered with the nature of the characters.

Take Light, for instance. In the original, Light is irredeemably evil. He is prepared to kill anyone who gets in his way, no matter how innocent, including his own family if need be. Everything he does, he does by his own choice, not pressured or motivated by anything other than his own ideology. Yet in this film, Light has considerably more scruples. The hubris is still there, of course. Yet he is unwilling to kill innocent people. Mi(s)a and Ryuk play an active role in encouraging Light’s descent into darkness. Ryuk is here for entertainment, as in the original, but here he is more than just an observer.

It is Mia, not Light, who kills the FBI officers tasked with following the Kira suspects. After this incident, Light’s father, still the police officer charged with bringing Light to justice, challenges Kira on a TV broadcast. Mia insists they kill him, but Light flat out refuses. Eventually, Ryuk and Mia attempt to convince and then compel Light to surrender the Death Note to the considerably more ruthless Mia. This ultimately ends in Mia betraying and trying to kill Light, a radical variation on her obsessive love for Light in the original. At one point, Light tries to bargain with L. Such a compromise would never have occurred to the true Light, who was utterly uncompromising.

Then there is L. His mannerisms are suitably eccentric (and an explanation is even provided for them). However, his character is a little off. He goes off the rails when Watari is killed, chasing Light through the city streets with a stolen police car and a gun. He is too emotional (although admittedly, L died just after Watari in the anime, so it is uncertain how he might have responded). This chase scene is uninteresting and lacks tension. It is no substitute for the clash of minds involved in the delicate game of cat and mouse between Light and L in the source material.

Then, at the end, L considers using the Death Note to kill L for revenge (it is left open-ended whether he really does this). Thus, while Light has gained some scruples, L has lost them. The true L wants to bring Light to justice by compiling evidence and then having him imprisoned. While he has to make allowances for the fact that he is dealing with a supernatural power with which the criminal justice system is ill-suited to deal, he tries to do things by the book as much as possible. L would never lower himself to Light’s level by using the Death Note himself.

For these reasons, fans of Death Note will not enjoy it. I doubt it will make many new fans either. In short, it is a failure of an adaptation.

What do you think about this new Death Note film?