SPOILERS for both the Netflix movie & the original anime series!
The wait for Netflix’s live action adaptation of the popular franchise Death Note is finally here. With anime live action adaptations having a very bad reputation, it was hard to be hopeful for this one.
Yes, it could have been worse, but Death Note‘s adaptation had enough problems to make the story unrecognizable. That’s not to say all of the changes were bad. The movie benefited from slightly altering some plot points, but it also missed the mark in the most important areas.
For this reason, we are putting the quality of the movie itself aside to focus on the adaptation, taking a look at what the movie got right, and what it got (terribly) wrong.
Light’s God complex and how it inspires Kira’s cult
It was only for a few minutes, but the montage of Kira’s cult was done quite well. Light’s idea of having the victims draw his name, as well as the explanation for the reason behind the name ‘Kira’ were nice touches. His cult is not useless either, as one Light’s followers actually ends up saving him at some point.
Light’s God complex is a key theme in Death Note, and even if Light Turner isn’t an egotistical sociopath the way Light Yagami is, Light’s attitude made sense in this particular story.
As a Western adaptation, it’s believable
Many of the changes in this adaptation are realistic in the setting of Seattle 2017. Light Yagami is Light Turner, and Misa Amane is Mia. Furthermore, Light is not your typical charming, honor student because that’s not as well seen in the US as it is in Japan.
After all, what society values varies from one culture to another. Death Note is a story that could take place anywhere on Earth, and Netflix made sure that every aspect of the movie fit well in Seattle 2017.
Light’s family has gotten a lot smaller
In the manga and anime, both of Light’s parents are alive, and he also has a younger sister, Sayu. In the movie, there is no younger sister, and her mother was killed to have Light have a motive to want to fight against criminals and injustice. The character of Light’s father, James Turner, is one of the best in the movie.
His relationship with Light fits perfectly in the story and has a natural progression, and his reactions to L’s antics are also quite amusing. Given how the movie had less time than the series (and it even felt rushed towards the end), making Light’s family smaller seems like a good choice.
The Death Note’s new rule, and Light’s final plan
OK, this one might be a plus or a negative depending on how much you like your series being altered. But you have to give credit where it’s due: Netflix adds a new rule to the Death Note, and it’s one that actually plays a pivotal role in the story.
Like it or not, the rule is quite interesting and opens the door to many new possibilities. It’s a bit confusing (as most of the rules in the notebook are), but it plays an important role at the end of the movie. And what’s more, it makes it look like Light could plan ahead.
Light and L need to tone down their emotions
This is probably the movie’s biggest flaw. It’s not a matter of source material faithfulness, it’s just that removing Light and L’s calm and smart personalities is like removing what makes Death Note the classic it is. Thriller series are plagued with action scenes, but Death Note chooses to put two highly intelligent characters at the center of it. L is eccentric and socially awkward, but he’s also quiet and witty.
Light is charming and sociable, but he’s also a manipulative sociopath. Light is struggling to cope from the beginning, but it’s almost laughable how much L loses his mind after Light targets Watari. L and Light would never get this emotional, and it’s not until their deaths that you see them lose control/sanity. The way Light messes up in his first conversation with L is as laughable as irritating.
We all remember L and Light’s interactions in the manga/anime, and they’re some of the most memorable conversations in recent anime. Their exchanges were filled with witty comments, brain games, and tense moments.
Light and L are not intelligent
Showing a character doing other people’s homework, or saying that another character is a great detective is not enough. Show, don’t tell. Light and L are meant to be smart. However, their actions are not only far from being smart, they are also pretty close to being stupid.
Putting aside how easily they lose their temper, their intelligence is also inconsistent. Light starts out acting erratic and scared but ends up having a master plan by the end. On the other hand, L starts out being smart and very loyal to the adaptation but ends up acting violently and emotionally.
Ryuk is meant to be neutral
The shinigami Ryuk is supposed to be indifferent to the whole story, as well as represent the neutrality of what death and justice are or should be. He does mention at some point that this is all a game to him, but Ryuk is still the one to push Light to kill that first bully. There was no need to change anything about Ryuk’s role or personality in a US adaptation, since he’s not even human.
The way Ryuk exposes (or chooses not to expose) the inner workings of the Death Note, his neutral role, and his sarcastic commentary on everything Light says and does is one of the highlights of the series and one of its main sources of comedy. Here, Ryuk is just creepy, and his presence serves no purpose.
Mia is just as bad as Misa, but at least Misa made some sense
Misa wasn’t the most beloved character in the original series. In fact, she was probably the most disliked (and she’s meant to be that way). Misa contrasts with Light and L’s seriousness by being loud, obnoxious, and needy. She does share Kira’s morals and has him as her idol, but it’s her romantic love towards Light Yagami that makes her character irritating at some points.
If there’s a character Netflix should have altered, it’s this one. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. While it’s true that Mia’s obnoxiousness is gone (and the fact that this Light loves her back probably helps), she’s pure evil… just cause. Her desire to kill is not based on any moral ground, but rather on a desire to “be special” and stand out from the rest. She’s just tired of being a cheerleader. That’s it.
Overall, the merits of Netflix’s Death Note adaptation are precisely that: how they adapt an early 200s Japanese story into a 2017 US setting in a way that is believable. The movie takes some creative liberties that actually make the movie more concise and realistic. On the other hand, the biggest problem of the adaptation is that everyone is out of character.
This wouldn’t be such a big issue for any other adaptation, but what makes Death Note so engaging is not the concept of a killing notebook itself, but the characters, their intelligence, and the interactions between them. Remove all that, and most of the magic of Death Note is gone.