The original Death Note series is one of the most popular anime shows of all time, and that means it's near and dear to a lot of fans' hearts. Unfortunately, Death Note’s popularity also means that any adaptation would likely to face a lot of scrutiny, regardless of if any changes were made.
Adam Wingard was set to direct the Netflix's adaptation of Death Note and because of his amazing work with The Guest and Your'e Next, fans were excited to see his adaptation of the property. Sadly, the hype was short lived and Death Note was beset with controversy months before the film premiered on #Netflix.
Shortly after the first trailer was released, a social media story erupted with allegations of whitewashing and that the film was desecrating the source material. Yes, Netflix’s Death Note changed the setting of the property from Japan to the US (which is where the allegations of whitewashing came from), however, Death Note is hardly the first film that has done this; other films like Godzilla, The Departed, The Ring, The Grudge, The Magnificent Seven, and The Last Man Standing also started as Japanese properties.
Major spoilers for Netflix's Death Note below.
Now that Death Note has officially premiered on Netflix, the film currently sits at 40% from critics and 29% from audience reviews on Rotten Tomatoes. Most of the reviews from fans follow the same pre-judgment logic that haunted the film before its release, with the main complaint being that the film disrespected the source material — which couldn’t be further from the truth.
While Netflix Death Note wasn’t a perfect film, it doesn’t deserve to be called a “disrespectful” adaptation. It’s clear that #AdamWingard and Death Note's writers understood and respected the source material, and they didn’t make unnecessary changes. Every single change had a specific purpose that helped bring the story of Death Note to life in a new medium.
The aspects that fans criticized the most were the changes made to the characters, especially Light. Twitter exploded with criticism over the changes made to the main character, and it was clear they weren't happy:
While Light was very different in the anime, Wingard’s version actually made him more relatable and well-rounded — contrary to what the tweets above say. Let’s take a look at how Netflix’s Death Note successfully adapted the source material, starting with our main character, Light Turner.
It Was Necessary To Make Changes To Light Yagami For Netflix
In the Death Note anime series, Light Yagami was hyper-intelligent, extremely athletic, and gifted in almost every way; however, he was also a sociopath. He began his journey with the Death Note saying that he wanted to enact justice and bring peace to the world. However, his motives quickly became selfish, and he set his sights on becoming a God.
While Light Yagami is an interesting character, it’s hard to relate to someone who murders people for his own personal gain. In Netflix’s #DeathNote, Light Turner is quite different than Light Yagami, but in a lot of ways, he’s a more well-rounded character.
When we are introduced to Light Turner, he is a normal, bright high schooler who recently lost his mother. We later find out that his mother was killed and the suspected killer walked free. The fact that Light Turner’s mother’s murderer was still on the loose propels the character's sense of justice forward and leads him down the path to becoming Kira (the moniker he takes while killing criminals with the Death Note).
Unlike Light Yagami, Light Turner is motivated by personal vengeance, and when he first starts using the Death Note, it’s easy to understand that he is doing this because almost anyone watching can relate to seeking justice for a loved one.
Unlike in the anime version, Light Turner has staunch morals, vowing that he would never kill “innocent” people. Instead, his girlfriend Mia is the one used to push the Kira agenda into a darker place, and ultimately betrays Light. The best example of this is when Mia uses the Death Note to kill FBI agents who are tailing Light, when Light specifically said that he wouldn't kill innocent people.
The addition of Mia (who is likely an analog for Misa Amane from the Death Note anime), to Light’s story adds an extra dimension and fleshes out Light's agenda with the Death Note. Mia's presences also showcases Light Turner's personality through their interactions, because at his core, he's basically a confused teenager who stumbles into great power and wrestles with his own sense of morality.
How Death Note's Version Of L Balanced The Scales And Brought Humanity To The Story
Unlike Light Turner, L wasn't as harshly critiqued on by fans, but there were still some who felt that he was "dumbed" down for Wingard's adaptation. However, L's intellect shined bright, but he was anchored down by his emotions, which is a huge difference from the anime/manga.
In the Death Note anime series, L served as Light Yagami’s main opposition and the two engaged in a well-matched battle of wits. L was almost robotic in his calculation and was raised to be the world’s greatest detective. However, L was also a very rigid character, devoid of emotion and focused on his singular goal of catching Kira.
Oddly enough, Netflix’s version of L (Lakeith Stanfield) maintained a lot of the characteristics from the original series, except that his drive to catch Kira was also fueled by raw emotion. As the game of cat and mouse between Light and L ramps up, L’s eccentricities begin to show, and toward the end of the film, he becomes more frantic, even going after Light Turner with a gun at one point.
In Netflix's Death Note, L is still a genius detective, but just like Light Turner, he is still an emotionally immature teenager. As the audience, you can feel L’s frustration build as he tries to reveal that Light is Kira and that frustration compounds when he is unsuccessful. The added emotional stakes fleshed out the duel between the film’s leads, and allowed us to connect to both characters personally.
The Supporting Characters In Death Note Remained Relatively Unchanged And Fit The Narrative Of The Film
The addition of Mia (Margaret Qualley) mirrored elements of how Misa Amane was used in the anime, but Mia was more independent and showed a lot more agency. Mia’s relationship with Light Turner was used to coax out Light’s darker side, but his journey still reflected the inner struggle Light Yagami faced in the anime.
Light’s father, Detective James Turner (Shea Wingham), was extremely similar to Detective Soichiro Yagami, and a lot of the exchanges between him and Light mirrored the source material. James Turner was still a loving father, who couldn’t believe that his son was Kira and fought against L every time it was suggested that he could be.
Willem Dafoe’s portrayal of Ryuk was spot on, and he brought a level of mystery to the film. Unlike in the anime, the audience wasn't privy to a lot of the story as it unfolded, and Ryuk is used to mask Mia’s true intentions. Through most of the film, we are led to believe that Ryuk is killing people of his own volition; however, he was simply along for the ride, and watched Mia and Light’s story unfold as the two betrayed each other. Out of all the characters, Ryuk was changed the least for the adaptation, and even still had an affinity for apples.
Adam Wingard's Death Note Changed Many Aspects Of The Source Material, But The Core Story Never Changed
It's a tricky thing for a filmmaker to adapt a preexisting property, and even more so when the source material is in another language. There are cultural aspects that need to be changed to fit a different audience, and sometimes things get lost in translation. Luckily, Netflix’s Death Note made many changes from the source material, but the core plot and relationship between Light and L remains intact.
For the amount of source material Netflix’s Death Note covered, Adam Wingard and everyone who worked on the film did a great job, and brought the world of Death Note to a brand-new audience. The changes made Netlfix's Death Note from the source material fit the story Wingard was trying to tell, and did so in a way that still rang true to the spirit of the original anime.
Make sure you catch Death Note on Netflix.
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