Netflix tries its hand at creating a western adaptation of a popular Japanese manga series in the form of their weak adaptation of Death Note. Good directing, acting and an overall solid soundtrack fail to save the film and its poor writing.
In the Netflix adaptation of popular manga series Death Note, Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a supposedly intelligent teenager who sees injustice around him in the form of bullying and the death of his mother where the killer has walked away free. One day the Death Note, a book that has the power to end the life of whoever’s name is written in the book, falls from the sky to be picked up by Light, who is then visited by Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) who urges him to try out the Death Note on a well-known bully, to which Light complies. The next day Light tells Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), a fellow student and his love interest, about the book, proving its power to her before they decide to use this power to cleanse the world of criminals under the codename Kira. Mysterious detective L (Lakeith Stanfield) works with his assistant Watari (Paul Nakauchi) and Light’s father James Turner (Shea Whigham) to uncover the identity of Kira and end his killing sprees.
For this review, I’ll talk about the film as a standalone and not as an adaptation but I will comment on how it has been adapted in the final part of the review. The reason being is that while the Death Note manga fanbase is part of the film’s target audience, the film itself has been made with a western target audience in mind and so to make this adaptation work changes had to be made to accommodate this fact. For this reason, I’ll leave my thoughts on the adaptation side of the film until the end and in the meantime, I’ll discuss whether the film works on its own.
To get straight to the point, the film was surprisingly better than I had anticipated, however still falls short of being considered ‘good’ due to the poor writing seen throughout the film. The pacing of the narrative feels off for much of the film, for example L’s thinking and deduction takes him incredibly close to solving the Kira mystery within about 10-15 minutes after his first appearance in the film. We aren’t shown much of how he gets to his conclusions, L just tells everyone his reasoning, a lot of which is just guessing, which can especially be seen when making his public appearance to determine how Kira’s power works. The plan has many flaws yet he somehow correctly determines how the power works, while not considering all the other factors that could be present. Also, the romance between Light and Mia seems very forced, even their first proper interaction seems silly; he tells her about his magical killing book and that he killed the bully with it to impress her because, you know, aren’t all girls attracted to people who kill other people? And then less than 5 minutes later they’re making out in Light’s room. We don’t see how they’re relationship develops, no build up, it just happens. The film is also riddled with plot holes, as occasionally the rules of the Death Note are broken for the sake of the narrative. Constant tonal shifts also didn’t help much, making some scenes feel quite jarring. This kind of writing pops up in the film time and time again and ruins the potential it had to work well, although the shabby writing could also be down to the limited time the film allows to tell this story, especially since the original story was long enough to warrant a TV series. I feel as though this project would have been better off as a 3-4 hour-long episode miniseries rather than a film.
Everything else about the film was solid, the directing by Adam Wingard portrayed the mood in each scene quite well and his constant use of Dutch tilts, while some may find excessive at times, gave it the teen crime-horror vibe they were going for. The soundtrack was also very good, again creating the right kind of atmosphere for each scene although the song playing over the Ferris wheel scene later in the film was a questionable choice. The sound design was excellent, there was one moment where the beat of the music matched the dripping of water on screen raising the tension quite well, moments like this can be seen throughout the film. The actors did a brilliant job considering the scripts they were working with, Lakeith Stanfield’s portrayal of L early in the film was spot on, before the writing took the character on a different path than it should have. Willem Dafoe as Ryuk turned out as expected, simply excellent.
Now onto my thoughts on the film as an adaptation. If you’re looking for an adaptation with a similar feel to the original series than this film isn’t for you. The mind games between Light and L are nowhere near as thrilling, Light and Mia (called Misa in the original work) have seemingly swapped personalities in this version, with Light not willing to kill those who are not criminals to preserve Kira while Mia seems more obsessed than Light in creating the new world. Light Turner is also nowhere near as smart as he was in the original, often making stupid decisions like telling Mia he killed someone with the Death Note the day after doing it with no worry about being given away to the police. This light is empathetic, a far cry from the cold, calculating and manipulative Light Yagami fans are so fond of. L is accurate up to the point where he makes his public appearance, which is completely unlike him to do. Only Ryuk seems to have been left largely untouched. The big questions of ideologies regarding what true justice is that were a big part of the original series have been dumbed down a lot as well, but are at least still present in some sort of form.
In summary, the Netflix adaptation of Death Note struggles a lot due to its poor writing, which could be due to the lack of runtime to properly flesh out the narrative. Unfortunately, the solid directing, music and acting isn’t enough to save the film, as while it is watchable, it’s very far from the excellent adaptation that it could have been, as Western production companies continue to struggle to successfully adapt popular Japanese manga and animated series.