If you had the power to kill the world’s worst criminals, would you? This is the premise that defines the critically-acclaimed Death Note anime (TV) series and the recent Netflix film adaptation of the same name. In both stories, a high school boy by the name of Light finds a magical notebook capable of killing anyone whose name is written in it.
To the average Netflix viewer, Adam Wingard’s “Death Note” is by all means satisfactory as a film. However, to fans (like myself) of the Death Note anime series, the Netflix film leaves much to be desired.
Despite their similarities in premise, the two interpretations couldn’t be more different in the way they are executed. A large part of the anime’s appeal comes from the fact that it never settles on a clear-cut answer to the main character’s moral dilemma. Should he or shouldn’t he use the power of the Death Note to rid the world of evil? Instead, the anime series allows the audience to distinguish right from wrong. And although Death Note by Netflix flirts with this technique, it ultimately makes action the centerpiece of the story, making for a film without a backbone.
Wingard’s Netflix Death Note also fails to deliver when it comes to character development. Being that the thirty-four episode anime TV series was crammed into a 100 minute film, it’s no wonder it feels rushed. In fact, it is so rushed that we never get to understand the true relationship between two of the most important characters in the movie: Light and Mia. As a result, the Netflix characters feel hollow, and by the end of the film we are left caring no more about them than we first did going into the film. Light is portrayed as a bratty, impulsive individual who is purely a slave to his own emotions. The anime’s take on Light, however, is more calculating, complex, and dark, culminating in a far more engaging character. This Light kills criminals strategically rather than out of anger, grudge, or spite. While many other film adaptations make meaningful changes to their characters for the purpose of making them more relatable to a given audience, Wingard’s Netflix Death Note insists on making changes for the sole purpose of - you guessed it - making changes. Many fans of the anime, myself included, were taken aback by the total switch in personalities in many of the main characters.
Another core aspect of the original Death Note anime is the intellectual game of “cat and mouse” between Light and his adversary, “L”. This element is what gives the story its excitement, its heart. If I there’s anything that I would compare it to, it would be the chicken stock in a hearty bowl of chicken noodle soup. And get this - the conflict is intellectual, not physical. As a result, the battle between Light and “L” is multifaceted, with each trying to outfox the other in true Sherlock Holmes fashion. In the Netflix film, however, the battle between Light and “L” devolves into one of purely physical conflict. As a result, it isn’t nearly as layered, becoming devoid of life.
Although there are many missteps in the Netflix film’s interpretation, it does manage to pull a few of the right strings to make it somewhat of a film worth watching. First and foremost is the casting for the character of Ryuk - Willem Dafoe. His creepy, sadistic voice perfectly complements that of the Death God he portrays in the film. In fact, when creating Ryuk, the creators of the original Death Note manga drew inspiration directly from Willem Dafoe himself. The film also manages to pinpoint some (but not all) of L’s signature characteristics from the anime, including his sweet tooth and unrivaled deductive reasoning. The last big selling point of this movie is its excellent ending. During the final act, a more refined, calculating, and deadly Light, akin to that of the anime, is unveiled. The film also ends on a cliff-hanger, leaving many questions unanswered. This provides the perfect setting for a sequel, which could further develop Light, “L”, and Ryuk as characters, as well as fix many of the mistakes the first film makes. All in all, this film pleases its target audience: the average North American moviegoer that has never experienced the magic of the original anime series.