There are so many live-action anime adaptations that could easily take their place on the chopping block for unfaithful treason. I had a look at them all and the first conclusion I had was to include them all in some kind of blanket award for garbage, but I always knew that I would have to keep coming back to 2017’s Death Note, the reason being that, as a dedicated admirer of the anime and manga, this film felt like a personal attack.
Directed by Adam Wingard, Death Note is the story of Light Turner (Nat Wolff) discovers a notebook capable of killing anyone whose name is written in it. With the assistance of Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), they come up with a plan to rid the world of criminals and become rulers of the world they want to create under the persona of Kira. Meanwhile, Light’s dad James Turner (Shea Whigham), a police detective, teams up with the nameless consulting detective known only as L (Lakeith Stanfield) to bring them to justice.
If I haven’t expressed this enough, I am a humongous fan of the Death Note anime series and manga. It is one of the anime’s that sparked my admiration for the artform as another form of unique and intriguing storytelling. While others despise the thought of studio’s adapting anime series into live-action, I welcome it as although the industry is more widely mainstream than it was, it still has a sort of niche audience, so the importance of getting these stories to a wider audience can have a positive effect so long as they are respectful.
The anime series of Death Note also presented a lot of interesting thoughts and ideas, as well as compelling storytelling. What kept me entertained was the exploration into how one brings about justice and order and the limits as to how they would go about getting it. It’s what made the series a lot bolder than its story suggests. Death Note the film kicks boldness down the road, stamps on its face, and boils it down to its simplest form. But in doing this, it completely misrepresents the idea of the entire series.
The film changes so many things, whether they’re subtle or blatant, and more than often these changes don’t turn out for the best. Take the characters for instance who are absolutely nothing like their animated counterparts and are hugely insulting to the fans who have taken these characters to heart. In the anime, the entire entertainment value is apparent in the mental game of chess/cat and mouse game that Light and L partake in. Both are geniuses who have polar opposite opinions when it comes to justice and both work towards their goals of discovering each other’s identity in uniquely clever methods. In the film, there are no remnants of this at all and what should be the big driving force of the film is not even remotely unique. The decisions Light makes in this film are motivated entirely for the wrong reasons and L is way overly emotional at times rather than being this introverted, strange character.
The worst, and I mean the absolute worst sin this film commits is in the character of Mia (Misa Amane in the series). This representation made my theory of the filmmakers just skimming through the manga and anime before penning this more believable. In the series, Misa shares the same views as Light and soon they both become “boyfriend and girlfriend”, I use quotation because their relationship is one where Misa is very submissive and doesn’t mind being used in Light’s efforts to become the god of the world he wants to create. Death Note the film, on the other hand, tries something different by having Mia being the manipulative one.
Admittedly, there is one character the film perfects which is the observant Shinigami Ryuk (Willem Dafoe). Ryuk is supposed to be us, the audience, just a bystander to the events he instigated, but he also acts as a kind of temptation to Light to use the notebook. In the lead up to this film’s production, when I read Willem Dafoe had been cast as Ryuk I thought to myself that he was THE only choice for Ryuk and I was right. My only gripe is that he hides in the shadows all the time, so we never really get a good look at him, but for the way the film presents him, it works to its favour.
I could talk all day about character and although they don’t honour the legacy of Death Note, surely, they honour the feel? Nope. This film has a dark tone which by the end is rudely interrupted by what seems to be upbeat 1980’s soundtrack. At the time this was a popular trope, but a soundtrack of any kind should not be anywhere near a story as dark as Death Note. Because of this, the final moments are devoid of any sort of intensity and the mental game of chess is cheaper consequently.
Having to watch this adaptation hurt, it hurt personally because the story the anime told was something I have to heart, it was even the inspiration for one of the very first short films I made. I remember following updates on this film and because of the detailing of those updates, expected a faithful adaptation. Even if the filmmakers had originally said that this was their own take on the anime, I’d probably be feeling exactly the same because of how it has barely scratched the surface of what this story is truly about. Every single beat this film wants to hit is out of sync and weak, and it has blitzed an intelligent series into an unrecognisable disappointment.