ByDominic Watling, writer at
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Dominic Watling

Netflix's Death Note movie adaptation has faced controversy ever since its original announcement. Being such a massively popular anime and manga series, there were those who were very excited for the gripping plot reach a wider audience through Netflix. On the other hand, some fans believed it was impossible to express the complex themes of Death Note in the duration of a single movie, and the choice to relocate the setting from Japan to Seattle was seen as needless pandering to a "mainstream" audience. Fears were calmed somewhat when it was revealed esteemed director Adam Wingard was responsible for the adaptation and expressed his excitement for working on the project as a huge fan of the original source material.

With Netflix's Death Note arriving this week, the first reviews for the film have been released, and with a current Rotten Tomatoes rating of just 38 percent, it doesn't look like good news for Wingard's adaptation.

So what went wrong? Having read through every professional review released so far, as well as keeping up to date with news of the film and the concerns raised by fans prior to release, I have analyzed the areas that were most significant to Death Note's disappointing review scores.

Death Note: What Went Wrong?

1. It Should Have Been A Series, Not A Movie

Perhaps the most important factor of all — if the reviews are to be believed — and it makes sense really. as the fans enjoyed it was a 108-chapter manga, and the only worthwhile adaptation released so far has been a 19-hour anime series. Fitting the narrative properly into a single, 94-minute film might have doomed Netflix's Death Note to failure from the start.

For example, one of the most interesting pieces of character development in Death Note is the steady progression of Light Yagami's embrace of the power of the notebook, but the Netflix adaptation chooses to depict Light and Mia's transformation into a world-renowned force of death through a montage, thereby skipping some interesting characterization in the interests of time.

The general consensus is that although Netflix's Death Note takes the time to initially establish the characters, it is too quick to jump into scenes of killings, gore, stunts and sex while neglecting to focus on the intricate character details and relationships that made the original so great.

'Death Note' [Credit: Netflix]
'Death Note' [Credit: Netflix]

2. Pointless 'Whitewashing' Adds Nothing To The Plot

The Netflix Death Note changes the setting from Japan to Seattle. This is not necessarily a bad thing on its own, but changing the setting so drastically should have purposeful effect on the work and what it's trying to say. Instead, reviewers decry that the only change to Death Note is that the cast and setting is "whiter," with no other meaningful cultural change, rendering the change to Seattle entirely pointless (aside from presumably a belief that the show would be more popular to a wider audience if it were set in America).

It's not like there is a shortage of interesting questions that could be asked by moving the setting of Death Note to the USA: school shootings, drone attacks, the role of judges and a fair trial in achieving justice, and the moral question of the death penalty. These are all very topical and hot-button issues that would have been very fitting if approached in Death Note, but this adaptation appears to steer clear of these themes.

The original Death Note was interesting partly because it dealt with matters unique to Japan at the time: the death penalty, the use of firearms and the definition of a "safe" world. By removing the deep moral questions in favor of high-octane scenes, this Death Note lacks the heart of the series.

'Death Note' [Credit: Netflix]
'Death Note' [Credit: Netflix]

3. The Tone And Characterization Are Confused

A problem faced by multiple directors attempting live-action adaptations of anime or manga is that characters who work in print or in animation sometimes fall short when portrayed by real actors. Lakeith Stanfield appears to have provided a solid performance in Death Note, but the character he was tasked play (a mysterious detective called L who cares very little for social norms) sometimes conflicts with the tone of the film, being a kooky detective with a sweet tooth while bloody killings occur in the next scene. The way L unravels the mystery and places the location of "Kira" in Seattle seems rushed, and gives him the impression of having psychic powers — another conflict in tone.

Light is transformed from an honor-student psychopath to a fairly "normal" student, and Mia is no longer a victim; instead an essential and equal partner to the murder rampage. These changes aren't necessarily bad — and could have led to an interesting re-imagining of the story if taken all the way — but by keeping the rest of the plot aligned with the original story it makes the tone of Death Note feel stilted.

The audience watched in fascination and horror as Light used his genius intellect to manipulate others to achieve his goals in the original story. It made the show darker and piqued our curiosity as to who would ultimately outwit the other — L or Light. Now, it feels like a teenage power fantasy without any of the previous intrigues; L is far smarter than Light, and this is clear throughout. The narrative loses much ofits appeal as a battle of the minds.

The focus on action rather than morality gives the film a very different tone than the original, and it doesn't appear to work as successfully. The Playlist's Gary Garrison states that the climax in particular is "hilarious" through the nonsensical nature of the plot and tone. Based on initial reviews, it sounds like Wingard may have been setting up for a sequel.

'Death Note' [Credit: Netflix]
'Death Note' [Credit: Netflix]

It's Not All Bad

The review roundup is very disappointing for Netflix's Death Note, but it's far from unwatchable. The original source material is still excellent, so there is some interesting plot hidden away in there. The acting as a whole is also good, with Willem Dafoe as Ryuk being particularly entertaining.

The decision to make Death Note as a film rather than a whole series was probably the main reason for fan disappointment (if my analysis of the reviews proves correct). The time needed to develop intricate character details were replaced in favor of montages and action, altering the tone and muddying the plot. There was opportunity for a great performance here, but it wasn't possible to achieve maximum potential in such a short space of time.

I would instead recommend watching the original anime if you wish to experience Death Note.

What are your thoughts on the Netflix adaptation of Death Note?

(Sources: Rotten Tomatoes, Slant Magazine, Apnews, ThePlaylist)


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