If the famous Death Note anime adaptation were written by that kid in your high school class who thought Tim Burton was the greatest director of all time, it would probably look a whole lot like Death Note (2017).
When I heard Netflix was producing a live-action Death Note movie, I had yet to watch its famous anime counterpart, so I greeted the news with a shrug. My general philosophy has been that if you’re taking something animated – an anime, a video game, or something along those lines – and throwing it into a live-action setting, you should stop for a second and consider… well, not doing that. It just doesn’t work most of the time. Many of these properties have name value, though, and when Hollywood catches the scent of money to be made, that’s when we start getting turds like Warcraft or Ghost in the Shell. Death Note is no different. It’s a famous property that many people will have heard of, so I can’t pretend to be surprised that this movie was made.
Adaptations are funny things like that. A massive portion of movies released today are derivative of something else, as evidenced by a simple scroll through this summer‘s theatrical releases. I don’t necessarily have a strong opinion either way on the subject; it’s easy to rag on Hollywood for all the sequels, and that’s mostly deserved, but many of the greatest films ever made are adapted from something. It felt hypocritical to say “this can’t work, it’s an adaptation,” here, especially not having seen or read the source material. So I did.
Watching the Death Note anime reasserted my thoughts on these specific kinds of adaptations. My questions instead shifted to how they could pull off this specific story. The story of Death Note is dense, pretentious, and long-winded; a spiderweb of too-smart characters, complicated schemes, and lofty ideas about justice and morality. Much like the original Ghost in the Shell, it’s a very eccentric production that is specifically tailored to its original medium, and adapting it to an hour-and-a-half long, live-action production looked like a uniquely difficult task. Ghost in the Shell’s own adaptation certainly didn’t pull it off earlier this year, as you might have heard.
More presciently, perhaps: how can you make a Death Note movie that isn’t really Death Note, but still keeps fans of the original series happy, while also appealing to a general (American) audience in the way the source material perhaps cannot?
I ask this because this adaptation is more or less a complete alteration of its source material. This is fine – and even, I would argue, necessary – on paper, but you really have to dot your I’s and cross your T’s to pull off this kind of retelling when you’re dealing with such a famous franchise. Fans of the anime will find only surface-level similarities here: the main character, Light, is given a book with the power to kill anyone whose name is written within it. The book itself comes from a death god named Ryuk, who lurks over Light’s shoulder during his time with it. Additionally, Light is hunted by a brilliant, anonymous detective who goes only by “L.” On the surface? Sure, that’s Death Note. Digging any deeper beyond that core concept, however, leads you to a plot and characters that are fundamentally different from the original in almost every way.
Nat Wolff’s Light Turner (formerly Light Yagami in the anime) doesn’t really have any defining attributes beyond teenage angst. Across the first half of the movie, Turner comes up with no real plans beyond “do what the pretty girl says,” and it’s a relative miracle he makes it as long as he does without getting caught.
… when every character behaves in ways the audience can’t relate to, it becomes distracting.
One of the most hilarious contrasts between Turner and Yagami is how each of them treats the Death Note itself: Yagami designs an elaborate trap in his desk to ensure the Death Note would be destroyed if anyone came close to finding it, while Turner just sort of carries it around with him and accidentally shows it to his soon-to-be girlfriend almost immediately. Even setting aside the source material comparison, it’s not hard to see how silly this is: Light Turner, having received a notebook with the power to kill anyone he wants, carries it around loosely and coughs it up to the first person he sees. In either the best or worst pick-up attempt of all time, depending on how you look at it, he then drags her off to show her exactly how it works.
This is a plot nitpick, which isn’t a great way to break down a film, but I think it calls attention to an important issue with this movie’s characters: almost all of them are idiots. I’m not about to tell you characters can’t mistakes in movies – most would end far earlier if they didn’t – but when every character behaves in ways the audience can’t relate to, it becomes distracting.
Light Turner is just such an incredible doofus throughout this entire film. Death Note is an endless parade of his shitty decisions; in this adaptation, he gives himself the name “Kira” because he claims it means “light” in Russian and Celtic (it doesn’t) and he justifies this by saying it also means “killer” in Japanese (it doesn’t), so nobody would suspect him anyways. The dude names his mass murderer alter ego after himself, and the screenwriters decided this was such a good idea that they needed to invent fake words in multiple languages to facilitate it. It’s like if Bruce Wayne’s masked persona was named “Wayneman.”
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not idealizing the Death Note anime here, either. Light Yagami suffers from a dramatic case of Perfect Boy Syndrome: everything he does works perfectly and nobody ever suspects him because he’s just such a good, smart boy. He outsmarts several highly trained FBI agents just on the strength of his excellent boy-ness alone. Even Ryuk, a literal death god, seems surprised by Yagami’s capabilities at times. Yagami is a pretty ridiculous character, all things considered, but at least he makes sense in the context of the anime. You understand his vision for the Death Note and you understand how he keeps himself hidden (even if you don’t necessarily buy it). He makes mistakes, but those mistakes are tied to his personality, like his temper or impulsiveness. I find it more engaging to follow a character who knows what he or she is doing; after all, you’re not watching a James Bond movie where Bond doesn’t know how to shoot a gun, right? (Maybe that would be fun, but you get the point.)
One of the key dynamics that makes the source material’s initial concept so strong is the chess match between L and Light; they hunt each other, each operating under an alias, and exposure means death. Light being generally un-charismatic and under-qualified means this adaptation misses the boat on that dynamic almost entirely. L seems to know who Kira is from the outset (I guess it’s not hard, considering in this universe, his alias is literally Light), and his struggle seems to be more along the lines of proving this incompetent moron is the perpetrator.
L is one of the few points in this movie’s favor, at least for the first hour or so. Lakieth Stanfield gives the film’s best performance; he is believably eccentric but also a little more human than the anime representation. I liked his interactions with his assistant, Watari, and how the two clashed stylistically with Light’s father James, a straight-laced Seattle cop. Stanfield peaks in a mid-movie confrontation with Light, and it’s one of the rare moments where a character in this film expresses actual passion and conviction. It’s abundantly clear that Stanfield did his research; I love the way he brings L’s vocal patterns and mannerisms to life. “You’re the one who flew into the Sun,” he snaps at Light, “I’m just here to make sure you burn.”
Unfortunately, Stanfield is hamstrung by the same inconsistent writing that plagues the entire film. L spends the closing act of the movie completely out of control, screaming half his dialogue while more or less completely overcome with emotion, culminating in some truly silly scenes in the film’s home stretch. It’s a jarring shift in tone from the articulate, calculating, and aloof character the film had spent the previous hour establishing; it felt like there was supposed to be another police or police-adjacent character involved to do these things, but they decided to just mash it into L’s arc instead.
Stanfield is hamstrung by the same inconsistent writing that plagues the entire film.
I’m not arguing the character should adhere to the source material completely, but if the writers were going to diverge from it, they needed to have a more concrete vision of their own in mind. L’s moral code and demeanor vacillate too often to really nail down what the character is supposed to be. This L seems to be a figure of lawful justice, who believes Kira is a dangerous vigilante and shouldn’t have the power to pass judgement without due process. “I do not kill,” he retorts to Light during the aforementioned confrontation, and yet he also leaked information on criminal organizations to see if Kira would kill them (and of course he did). This is nitpicky, sure, but morality is a significant theme in Death Note, and it feels cheap for details like this to go unaddressed.
Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley) is a very strangely utilized character in this movie. She barely interacts with anybody other than Light, and nobody besides him seems to care that she exists. Even L doesn’t really seem to deduce – or at least, to care – that Light is working with an accomplice, and he even sends her out of the room when he confronts Light and James about Light’s activities. Ryuk is one of the only other characters who even acknowledges her, and the movie makes a point of telling you that she can’t see him. There’s so little character interaction for Mia beyond Light that you could probably build an case that she’s a ghost visible only to him, Sixth Sense style.
Even considering that he’s the only character who ever interacts with her, her romance with Light still manages to feel largely unearned. Everything the two of them do revolves around the Death Note; we only see Light and Mia together when they’re either talking about it or using it (this movie has multiple murder-sex montages and is much hornier than the anime, for the record), and there is really never much attraction established between them apart from a few stereotypical glances-across-the-classroom at the very beginning.
It honestly feels like Mia should have been the main character …
It almost seems like Mia is in love with the Death Note more than she is with Light himself, and you know what? That would be an interesting route to take! The idea that Mia was manipulating Light because she was seduced by the power the notebook promised could lead to some actual, interesting character drama. Mia betrays Light late in the film, writing his name in a page of the Death Note and refusing to undo it (which is now something the Death Note can do, apparently) until Light gives her the whole book. When the conclusion finally came around, I was waiting for her to reveal that her interest was only ever in the book, but the movie didn’t really go there. She wanted the book, sure, but she still seems to be trying to convince Light to stick around in the end.
It honestly feels like Mia should have been the main character – Margaret Qualley is way more charismatic than Nat Wolff, and her character does have actual motivations beyond “bullies are mean” and “impressing a pretty girl.” Death Note essentially splits Light Yagami’s traits between Light Turner and Mia, with Turner inheriting his “intelligence” and desire for justice and Mia taking on his ruthlessness and lack of morality. So far as I can tell, this split only exists to tack a high school romance into the Death Note story.
The biggest thematic difference between this movie and its source material is that the movie wants you to see Light Turner as the good guy, while the anime never wants the same for Light Yagami. You’re not supposed to like Yagami, because he’s the antihero; it might be fun to watch him try to build his insane power fantasy and outsmart the actual good guys trying to bring him down, but he’s still the villain. Mia is the character most in keeping with this theme: she has no qualms with blasting innocent people out of the way if they post any threat to Kira, which is something Light Yagami never hesitated to do.
Margaret Qualley’s performance in this movie is both charming and subtly power-hungry enough to fill Light’s shoes in a more intriguing way than Nat Wolff did. Much of what happens in the anime would not make for an interesting feature film, to be sure, but paring the story down to a game of cat-and-mouse between Qualley and Lakieth Stanfield would be, in my opinion, a really good time. There’s no real need for the high school sexy times here at all, and it felt like something that was only put in place to make the movie feel more approachable to American audiences who see that kind of shit all the time.
- Willem Dafoe is an excellent choice as Ryuk, but clear budgetary limitations keep Ryuk out of much of the film. Ryuk appears sparingly and spends many of his scenes out of camera focus. I understand there are monetary concerns with for a movie like this in trying to include a fully digital character like Ryuk, but it’s a shame to see it affect the film so blatantly. Creativity is born of limitation and all that.
- Speaking of Ryuk, the scene where Light meets him for the first time is completely ludicrous. I feel like it wasn’t meant to be as funny as it is, and it’s hilarious to me that Netflix gave it a whole YouTube promo.
- I mentioned it briefly above, but seriously: this movie is super horny. The original only uses romances for more practical reasons (Light has girlfriend for essentially social cover, and as Kira, he has an obsessive fan who “loves” him). This doesn’t matter too much, I guess, but it is very American.
- Watari hands James a business card that just says “Watari,” and it’s my favorite scene in the movie.
- The movie also tweaks the rules the rules of the book quite a bit, solely to facilitate the plot. An important distinction: in this movie, the plot makes the book’s rules, while in the anime, the book’s rules make the plot. I prefer the latter style of writing, as it feels less convenient.
- This movie does not have the chip scene.
- This movie has a fair amount of gore, but all the gore effects look pretty silly. Perhaps this was intentional, perhaps it was budget; either way, I wasn’t a huge fan. It was like Final Destination mixed with The Happening.
- Movie does not address whether Ryuk was watching Light and Mia get dirty. He can’t leave, right? Wouldn’t that be awkward?
- This movie has a weird sci-fi-looking gun at one point, and I don’t understand why.
The anime adaptation of Death Note certainly isn’t my favorite series ever, but it oozes with style and eccentricity and tells its story on its own terms. Death Note (2017) has the style – the visuals and soundtrack work quite nicely and it’s well edited – but it lacks everything else. There’s no soul here, and above all, it lacks a real point. It feels like this movie was made by people who read a Wikipedia plot summary of the source material, and again, that would be fine… except that the movie they did turn out wasn’t very good.
It feels like this movie was made by people who read a Wikipedia plot summary of the source material
Ultimately, this is a movie that doesn’t seem to know why it was made. I’m not sure exactly what the target audience was: the lack of depth turned off most fans of the original series, and the lack of originality turned off many others. It managed more Rotten Tomatoes hate than even Ghost in the Shell, including a brutal 24% from audiences (influenced, I would imagine, by unhappy Death Note fans). Perhaps 20 years from now, it’ll have some replay value as a weird, old, bad movie…
…until then, though, Death Note gets a three out of ten.