If you’d been given a weapon that could kill anyone from afar, would you use it? The Death Note, a notebook that only needs a name and face to kill, offers that temptation, and more. Originally a manga created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, the series was intensely popular in the 2000s. It also had a spike of renewed interest in 2015 when the drama adaptation aired on NTV. It’s hard to find a fan of anime and manga that hasn’t heard of the series before.
The Netflix adaptation quickly stirred up a swirl of controversy. Once the casting choices went live, accusations of whitewashing quickly became commonplace. Others were doubtful, considering Hollywood’s rocky relationship with poor adaptations of beloved anime classics, such as “Dragonball Z” and “Ghost in the Shell.” As a result, the Netflix adaptation had a lot to live up to, and could have potentially been decent.
Sadly, this was not the case.
The story centers around Light Turner (Nat Wolff), a teenager distant from his peers and has a strained relationship with his policeman father. One day, Light picks up a notebook that falls from the sky, and meets the original owner of the book, the shinigami Ryuk (Willem DaFoe). Ryuk tells him what the Death Note can do, and Light decides to test it out for himself. Light first uses it on some school bullies, but after being egged on by his crush, Mia (Margaret Qualley), he decides to rid the world of criminals. The gory deaths that ensue catch the attention of the genius detective L (Lakeith Stanfield), who sets out to bring the mysterious killer to justice. The original series found its charm in an elaborate cat and mouse game between two geniuses: the detective L, and the culprit, Kira. Since both sides were equally intelligent, who would triumph and how was always a mystery. Unfortunately, the Netflix movie failed to deliver on multiple levels.
Adaptations can tweak the story to fit the new setting, but the changes to the cast were too drastic. Light Yagami is one of the top-ranked students in all of Japan. He is charming and charismatic, truly the model student, so his eagerness to use the Death Note is a surprise. He is well-prepared, even rigging his desk to burst into flame to keep the Death Note from being uncovered. His caution and unwillingness to tell anyone about the Death Note keeps his identity hidden for quite some time. Continuing the killings and escalating them to a global scale is all part of Light’s plan. It’s also implied that he would have harbored similar feelings without the Death Note.
On the other hand, Light Turner is a troubled, everyman teenager. His intelligence is more of an informed characteristic, and so the tricks he manages to pull off are bumbling and unbelievable. He is a poor actor in front of his father, and shows off the Death Note to his highschool crush. Quite a contrast between the two.
Even Ryuk, known in the series for being extremely neutral, is instead a demonic figure who coaxes Light into using the Death Note for the intended purpose of mass murder. He is a Mephistopheles actively invested in human misery, not a potentially dangerous neutral ally. For longtime fans watching the movie, most of the characters were only similar in name only.
L’s character was far more interesting, and Stanfield’s acting carried the movie. While the script wrote L into situations not entirely reflective of the original character, Stanfield’s depiction made it entirely watchable. The classic chair-crouching and picking at candy is classic L. The issue didn’t lie with the acting, but rather with the movie’s inability to commit to the adaptation. After all, the Death Note is a murder weapon, which Light uses to systematically execute criminals. Giving this power to a young white man in America, where mass incarceration and systemic racial profiling is rampant, sets up an unspoken context. Hearing that L would be a young black man in the American adaptation was enough to make a wave of people interested, myself included. However, the Netflix adaption makes no mention of that, and instead paints of a picture of an extremely generic Seattle. The few scraps present in the movie went unnoticed. Detective Turner puts L in a chokehold when L threatens Light, and later, an enraged L chases Light through the streets with a gun. However, the movie completely misses the context of these, and presents them as plot points in a suspense film. The potential for a deeper narrative is there, but never came to light.
The gray morality of the series is sadly ignored. In the original manga, Light starts out with what he thinks are positive intentions, but as the series goes on, it becomes hard to tell whether what Light is doing is actually for the best. He begins using the Death Note to murder criminals, but then moves onto those who defy him. Towards the end of the series, Kira has moved on to condemning those committing minor crimes. His sense of justice becomes a god complex, and the final moments in the series compounds just how much he has fallen. By contrast, Light Turner is pushed to continue the killings by Mia. Mia is far more invested in the cause, not Light. Light scares easily, and is mostly concerned with saving his own life, rather than any sense of justice.
By the end, there is no moral– Light uses the Death Note to survive and for the most part, avoids all consequences. Does he have a sense of justice that matches the original Light, and will he continue to be Kira? It’s unclear, because the movie refuses to take any sort of stance. There’s no sense of character motivation beyond self-preservation, which is an extremely poor choice for Light. The original series did not have extreme depth, but the questions it posed on judgment attempted to make the reader think. The Netflix movie vaguely attempts to bring up the same questions, and then never delivers.
The original series took place over several years and featured a large cast of characters; both large challenges for anyone looking to condense that into a movie only two hours long at most. However, the Netflix adaptation failed in delivering not just a good adaptation, but also a good movie. Advice to anyone wishing to see a more faithful adaptation of “Death Note”: watch Shusuke Kaneko’s 2006 live-action films, and the 2015 NTV TV drama series instead.