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 named 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? The 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 when it comes to character development. The 34-episode anime TV series is crammed into a 100-minute film, so 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. 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. 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 gives the story excitement and heart. The conflict is intellectual, not physical, with each character trying to outfox the other in true Sherlock Holmes fashion. In the Netflix film, however, the battle between Light and “L” devolves into a purely physical conflict, 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 worth watching. First and foremost is the casting of Willem Dafoe for the character of Ryuk. His creepy, sadistic voice perfectly complements 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 Dafoe. 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 the 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 film makes. All in all, this film pleases its target audience: the average North American moviegoer who has never experienced the magic of the original anime series.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.