In Death Note, the Netflix original film based on the anime and manga of the same name, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) stumbles upon a book that carries with it enormous power. Write someone’s name in the Death Note while picturing their face, and they will die.
Light and new love interest Mia (Margaret Qualley) use the book to kill criminals across the world under the pseudonym Kira, thereby garnering controversial international attention.
With this power, Light draws in the authorities by way of the mysterious L (Lakeith Stanfield) and the police chief, who happens to be his own father (Shea Whigham). He also is accompanied by the owner of the Death Note, a Shinigami demon named Ryuk (mo-capped by Jason Liles, voiced by Willem Dafoe).
Without drawing comparisons to the anime, Death Note is a confusing mess of plot without character. For someone who is not familiar with how the Death Note works in the original source material, watching the Western live action adaptation seems to be an incomprehensible amalgamation of arbitrary rules.
Light begins reading the stipulations of the book early on in the film, then he exclaims his disinterest in rules. Later in the film, other characters will introduce rules that exist within the world of the film, but since it is the first time Light is hearing the rules, it feels like they are being introduced as a plot contrivance to move the story.
For those who are familiar with the anime or manga, it seems as if director Adam Wingard and the three credited screenwriters on this film (Charley Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater) are missing what makes the ludicrous plot of the Japanese animation entertaining: Characters.
This Americanized version focuses on the plot. While even this fails to live up to the pulse-pounding excitement of (most) of the run of the anime, the story is not as debilitating as the film’s lack of care in character development.
The far-reaching zaniness of the characters’ deductive reasoning is given credence in the anime because the anime takes the time to convince us that L and Light are two of the smartest teens in the world. They are pure geniuses of deductive reasoning, and we see this play out in each individual character before the two face each other. Then, once they do go toe-to-toe the show ramps up to a purely entertaining level of intrigue.
The film doesn’t understand this at all. Light is only proven to be a “genius” because he is caught writing other student’s term papers for cash. L is only given the inference of intelligence because he is a kid who runs a police force, for some reason.
Without grounding the crazy plotting with strong characters who we are intrigued to see face off in a battle of wits, Death Note is a massively myopic adaptation. The heart of the original material is decimated into bits and spread out over the length of a feature, so that there are only mere glimpses of the fun that the Japanese animation provides.
Instead of fun, the film is a tonal mishap that tries to be earnest and brooding. Light is too caught up in the love interest B-plot, leaving the climax of the film to be an attempt at a tragic success. None of this feels in line with the intentions of the source material.
Understandably, an adaptation cannot be endlessly faithful to its source. Particularly when a series is condensed into a feature, something has to be left on the cutting room floor.
In the case of 2017’s Death Note, however, the transformations that are made make the film somehow both bloated and empty. It cuts out subplots that are arguably necessary to cut, but it adds ones that are detrimental. It tears down the dimensions of its characters to make a flat canvas, from which only the farthest stretches of the imagination can connect the dots back to the characters that make the anime worthwhile. It strips away any dramatic tension that could be found in the story.
Death Note feels primed to appeal to nobody. Those who have never seen the anime or read the manga will find the film a poor entry point into the mythology. It is too rushed and unexplained of a world to indoctrinate new fans into the Death Note sphere. For those who are fans of the source material (arguably the only ones who truly care about this film), the film can only hope to be a massive disappointment, a poorly-executed and misguided adaptation that will only send viewers back to the anime.
Death Note: D
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—Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)