Netflix’s Death Note Misses The Story’s Core Appeal

It takes ten seconds to know that there is something fundamentally wrong with the new Death Note movie. 

In the very first scene, a student passes by the main character, Light Turner, and slips him a few dollars. Light hands him some forged homework. 

It’s at this moment that I knew why people were so angry about this movie (other than the white-washing). It’s because I knew that whatever was about to happen on screen, it was not going to be Death Note. 

This was something completely different.

The defining characteristic of Light in both the manga and anime versions is that he has a very strict and naive definition of justice. He believes that anyone breaking the law should be killed. With the death note, he takes it upon himself to be the judge, jury and executioner for the entire human race. 

 

This has implications for what kind of character Light has to be at the beginning of the story. He must be an innocent. Committing any immoral act, other than killing with the death note, would undermine all of his justifications for his actions. It would make him a hypocrite. 

Now, I’m on the record for saying that adaptations don’t necessarily need to follow the source material. And I stick by that. It’s perfectly possible to create an outstanding Death Note movie that bears little resemblance to the anime I love. But the caveat I will add is that 99% of the time, you have to at least attempt to capture the spirit of the original. You have to understand what the core appeal of the story is, and build your adaptation around that. 

So what is the core appeal of Death Note?

For me, it’s about seeing two intellectual juggernauts challenge and test one another. It’s about luxuriating in every shift in strategy in an incredible game of cat and mouse. In my video on the series, I talked about how fast-paced the story is and some of the techniques it uses to keep your interest. But even if the pacing was drawn out, the core relationship between these two characters would be magnetic. 

If there was one thing you absolutely need to get right about this series, it’s the relationship between Light and L. 

And, well, they’re halfway there. 

L, played by Lakeith Stanfield, does an admirable job in the role. I find it strange that he becomes an emotional train wreck in the second half of the story, but I can blame that on the writing and not his performance. Nat Wolff, however, is just plainly miscast. Instead of the fearless visionary of the series, we have a whining coward. 

What’s worse is that the battle of wits between them is over before it even really gets going, and that’s really what kills the momentum of the story. L is not Light’s main antagonist here. Instead, he’s got two others: his girlfriend, Mia; and the god of death, Ryuk. 

As an Aside:
Going into the movie, I would have bet money that the film would portray Ryuk as evil. The fact that he looks like the devil would make it too hard for American producers to resist. 
Another aside:
And there’s no better example of Americanization than L — a character defined by his level-headedness — recklessly driving on the sidewalk in a police car while screaming.

Okay back to it. 

There’s this weird attempt to use Mia and Ryuk as a way to continually absolve Light of any guilt in the proceedings. Ryuk all but forces Light to use the death note, and the film consistently portrays both Ryuk and Mia as the real villains. Light is just a hapless victim to these bloodthirsty monsters! 

I feel that this is done in an attempt to make audiences more readily sympathetic to Light instead of exploring the unsavoury elements of the source material. Strangely, the filmmakers are perfectly happy throwing gore up on the screen, but they balk at depicting an anti-hero that’s truly frightening. 

And that brings us back to the other core appeal of the show. We’re not meant to empathize with Light in the anime. We’re supposed to be seduced by his intellect and bravado, to vicariously enjoy the adrenaline-pumping tension he experiences, but we are not him. We are terrified by him. 

This version of Light has no convictions for us to get behind, and he is terrified of everything around him. He has more in common with Sam Witwicky than he does Walter White, and that’s really the crux of it. 

Ultimately, the film is a bit of a rushed mess with far too much plot to fit into its thin runtime, but if it had a better understanding of the core appeal of its source material and its genre, a lot more could be forgiven.

So what did you think of the movie? Leave your thoughts below!

Sage Hyden is a freelance writer, author and video producer. Check out Just Write on YouTube, a video essay series on writing techniques.