Death Note movie review: Netflix adaptation fails to capture essence, commentary of the classic anime
Director: Adam Wingard
That is what director Adam Wingard has managed to do to one of the smartest shows to ever hit our TV screens. He took the Death Note story, stripped away the best parts, added completely unnecessary scenes and served up something which is more plot hole than movie.
Let’s first appreciate the enormity of the task which Wingard was faced with. He had to distil over 12 hours (the run time of the anime) of storyline into less than two hours. And that is without taking into account the extra details from the manga comics. It is no mean feat and to his credit, he did pitch it as a “multiple-film series”.
Sadly, the multiple films didn’t materialise. Thus Wingard had to stuff an enormous amount of information into a very limited time frame. You’d think then that he wouldn’t look to add things, as the story is already a very rich and layered one.
Wingard decided to add a friggin’ “coming-of-age teenage tragic romance” to the story.
This addition kills the film. The romance and its progress use up the time which should have been used to develop the plot. It brings the story down to a very narrow plane where it is more about the relationship than the Death Note. Death Note was never about the little personal connections between people. It had a much larger world-view and described the effect of the killings on the society in general. It was a brilliant social commentary on how people could grow to appreciate a “benevolent” dictator.
The film barely gets into that commentary at all and instead makes it about the relationship of the protagonist (Light Turner) with his girlfriend and his father. That sets the bar really low. And the film fails to even clear that low bar! The “romance” just happens with no explanation for why and how. The two barely talk for two minutes before falling in love. And the father-son angle is a standard love-hate affair where Light comes off as a really irritating teenager.
Extremely poor character development
The problem actually stems from the fact that the characters are developed so, so poorly. Light is smart just because he does homework for the other kids for money. There is no glimpse into his inner thoughts or motivations. The anime, by contrast, first established Light’s angst at the world and how he saw it all as useless. It then showed us his brilliance through his work in school and in a national exam. But more than that, it showed us through his thoughts that this is no ordinary kid.
The anime Light was special. He was a worthy opponent for the detective, L. The metaphorical chess duel between the two, which anchored the anime, was extremely smart writing. There were subplots on subplots which showed L chipping away at the problem constantly with Light throwing every obstacle that he could in L’s way.
In comparison, the film’s Light is pedestrian. There is not even the semblance of a duel between the two and L manages to pinpoint Light with just a couple of moves. L has thankfully been given a meaty backstory and is played well by Lakeith Stanfield, in what is the only redeeming aspect of this film.
There is also the injustice done to Ryuk, the death god. Willem Dafoe portrays him well, but the film uses him just as an oddity — a thing to make the posters catchy and to inject a little horror. The anime Ryuk was never that. He had his own role in the story and was more relatable than perhaps any of the other characters.
Finally Mia, Light’s love interest, is the worst character of them all. There is rarely any reason to her actions and while at times her psychotic side is entertaining to watch, the screen time she takes up could have been used for so much more.
Story arc and plot holes
The story arc is extremely flimsy. It tumbles towards a conclusion based on some huge leaps in reasoning, which are both unbelievable and unsatisfying. Where the anime relied on the rules of the Death Note to advance the plot, the film uses improbable actions by the characters to reach some sort of conclusion.
Then there are the plot holes. Now there has been a backlash against unnecessary nit-picking of story lines, but Death Note commits some serious errors. More specifically, it tends to leave things unexplained which gets irritating as the anime was very particular about explaining everything and its impact to the story.
Death Note is not supposed to be action-oriented
The problem with the movie is that it wants to be an action movie. But Death Note was never about the action. The action was just the by-product of the larger battle at play as Light sought to impose his vision on to the world. Wingard either forgot or chose to ignore that bit and simply sought to make an action film with a bit of romance thrown in. In doing so, he made Death Note into just another film instead of the masterpiece it could have been.
And this is a tragedy, because the film will be most people’s first and only interaction with the Death Note universe. It will completely ruin the story for them and it is doubtful if they will watch the anime after the movie. And this would be a tragic loss, because it is a truly great story.