The title Death Note caries a lot of expectations for a large number of people, when making a film of a franchise there is two paths one can take. To be faithful or not. Netflix’s “adaptation” takes the path less traveled a wholly unfaithful adaptation of the beloved manga that revels in how unfaithful it is being to the source material. Strangely enough because of this “Death Note” is more accessible to both old fans and the uninitiated, though is it better for it?
The answer simply put is no, but how the film fails is actually interesting. Netflix’s “Death Note” is so radically different in key ways from the source material it is as if Director Adam Wingard was throwing off the chains the manga. What we have instead is an odd beast of a film, part fan-fiction, part adaption, and all strange. The film is so odd, I am still having trouble really understanding the decisions that went into producing it.
The plot of the film loosely follows that of the manga, well that would be if the manga was high on speed and had hit its head multiple times. As plot points central to the story are reached in a dizzying speed and then left without a chance to really make an impression. However while the plot has elements of the original source material they are often so poorly executed, rushed, or bastardized by the direction of the film to bear little resemblance to the beloved original.
It is clear Director Adam Wingard has a vision for the film as the whole production has an odd cohesiveness I did not expect with my admittedly low expectations. However the vision is not Death Note, the film feels far more like a bad teen focused high school horror film then the suspense thriller of the original, with comparisons to Final Destination being surprisingly apt. At times it almost seemed as if that is what Wingard was attempting to directa; as the originals deep characterization, mind games, and complex relationships are exchanged for cheap gore, horror tropes, and one of the worst love stories ever put to film.
This is no more clear then in the story of Light and L, who are supposed to make up the core of the story. While in the manga and anime their interactions and games they play are often the most interesting and important parts of the story, in the adaptation they aren’t. In fact they don’t exist.
In many ways their appearances together seem kinda perfunctory and superfluous. Added more due to obligation then any necessary plot advancement. It is strange to see a Death Note story virtually ignore the core of the originals narrative structure.
This however is born of necessity. In the manga and anime Light Yagami and L are equals, two sides of the same coin, each striving to achieve their own view of justice. The relationship while adversarial is almost one of brotherhood, each knowing once the other is gone they will be alone. However to secure their place in the world they must face one another in the end. Its both exciting and tragic.
This is impossible in the film as Light Turner is in no way comparable to Light Yagami. Where one is a genius the other acts dumb, while one is decisive the other is not, where one is a manipulator the other is the manipulated, where one shows fortitude of will the other screams. In short Light Yagami is the active author of his own fate, Light Turner is the passive instrument of others.
With the casting of Nat Wolff best known for appearing in John Green adaptations The Fault in Our Stars and leading up Paper Towns it was clear Light Turner was going to be very different from what we had seen previously. However we had no idea how right we were. Turner was no villain as Light was, Turner is virtually a nothing. A pawn in other better peoples games, why one would ever want to turn one of the great masterminds of manga and anime into that is beyond me. Just one more question this mess of a film left me wondering.
The core of Turners character unlike Lights is external, that being his relationship with his girlfriend Mia and his abilities granted to him by his Death Note. As mentioned above Turners agency is not his own, that goes to his murder loving girlfriend Mia as portrayed by Margaret Qualley. Who much like Turner despite the name has very little to do with her manga counterpart - Misa Amane. She is actually the one along with the much more active Ryuk, who pushes Turner into adopting the Kira persona. A radical change from the source material that does not pay dividends.
However there is some light in the dark as both L as played by Lakeith Stanfield and Ryuk by Willam Dafoe are great in their respective roles. Dafoe who admits to going in blind having never seen the source material nails this version of Ryuk. With his creepy mannerisms and glorious voice it is clear Dafoe was having fun and we have fun with him. Lakeith Standfield is the exact same, providing a great performance as L absolutely conquering the notoriously difficult characters mannerisms, while forced by necessity making the character his own.
Sadly these performances play against the film as a whole as they are in criminally too few scenes. Every scene they do appear they only serve to remind people of how bad Wolff and Qualley are in the lead roles. This is made all the worse as the Light/L brotherhood relationship which served as the core of the original is replaced by the Turner/Mia romance, something nobody asked for. With Ryuk’s narrative arc being radically changed for the worse from the original.
While the films poor direction, horrible script, and over the top sub-par acting marred the early going of the film, it still had some narrative cohesion even when the plot holes grew large enough to drive a truck through. Unfortunately for the film it does not end at its hour mark instead going on for a god awful third act.
Going into everything wrong with the final act would be difficult just due to the volume of issues present. The strange thing is looking back it is impossible to see how the film could have ended differently. Making this writer think all the strange narrative choices were deliberate. So much so that taken together I actually question if this team had any passing knowledge of Death Note prior to this film and if they did was this one gigantic screw you to it?
As an adaptation of Death Note Netflix’s production is a travesty, however it is so far removed from the source material it is easily forgotten. Likely to live on in meme infamy on anime message boards then any criterion collection. Every time the production was spoken of prior to release fans asked “do they get Death Note?” The answer is now an obvious no, they do not, or they did not care. One way or the other this a bad Death Note adaption.
As a standalone film though which Wingard clearly wishes for it to be judged it is a profound failure as well. A horrible script with some cringe inducing moments, terrible acting, a plot twist so inane as to make my head hurt, and villains that just make you shake your head asking “why”? “Death Note” without the weight of its pedigree is a bad film, anyone who watches it a second time will likely do so out of irony not love. The third act is so bad I would recommend an intoxicant.
In the end for fans of the original source material all our fears have been realized. For those looking to watch a good film this ain’t it. For those looking for a dumb but fun movie there are far better films on Netflix. For everyone I say stay away there be monster here.
You’re reading TAY, Kotaku’s community-run blog. TAY is written by and for Kotaku readers like you. We write about games, art, culture and everything in between. Want to write with us? Check out our tutorial hereand join in. Follow us on Twitter@KoTAYku and Like Us on Facebook.