If you can ignore the anime, Death Note turns out to be a fun, but ultimately forgettable film among the great Netflix movies that have come out over the years. However, as soon as you think about the actual manga and show, you will start banging your head repeatedly on the nearest available desk.
Usually, I try to avoid the which was better game, the book or the film, because that can get hairy pretty fast. As a movie reviewer, I try to give films quite a bit of leeway to interpret the property as best they can. I basically treat film adaptations as re-imaginings. Sometimes this thought process works pretty well. Let’s use Ender’s Game as an example: it’s a solid film despite missing out on plenty of threads from the book. I actually think those changes were important because what they left out would have weighed down and muddled the film. If you get upset at that, it’s certainly your right as a fan of the property. However it can be rather impractical holding a film to the same standard as a book. At the bare minimum, a re-imagining/adaptation needs to get the central theme and story beats, with the above permissions taken into account.
After that’s established, I’ll usually make note of major changes and not hammer a film version unless the changes are too egregious. With that in mind and treating this Netflix adaptation under those same rules, this film simply isn’t a dumpster fire … it has it’s own pile of problems. It’s more like a little garbage pail Jim Halpert set on fire under your desk Spoilers follow!!
Despite your thoughts on how close the characters act to their anime counterparts, the primary problem with this film is how it condenses way too much into a film adaptation less than 2 hours long. You may say “Commander Shipp, isn’t that the common problem facing tons of adaptations?” To that I would agree, but unfortunately that is the most egregious issue here. Every problem that follows is basically created out of a lack of time, not that the character directions were necessarily bad. Light doesn’t have enough time to experiment with the death note so his abilities later in the movie feel like a complete deus ex machina. Dedicate more of the film to this aspect and Light’s decisions feel more solid. Help us empathize with Light’s plight in high school a bit longer or his strained relationship with his father, then perhaps we would have felt more weight with his actions overall and the film’s ending. There were also parts added in that simply didn’t go anywhere or didn’t cause enough attachment hurt as well. Giving Watari his own scenes to hunt down L’s name made sense for this adaptation, but ultimately felt like a lot of build up towards nothing. In the show, the cat and mouse between L and Light flows well because they have multiple occasions to execute it. In doing so, it highlights different properties of the death note’s power and the respective deductive abilities of L and Light. This film focused most of that during Watari’s disappearance and it was not satisfying in the least.
L vs Light
Along with a condensed adaptation, it’s readily apparent that the next weakest thread is the cat and mouse game between L and Light. It’s almost non-existent in this version, though they attempt to force that with Watari’s disappearance and the recreated cafe chat between the two. Maybe the director and screenwriters couldn’t believe how engaging these two could be in real life so decided to downplay it. In doing so however, they neutered one of the central parts of the manga and show. The entire series literally hinges on L and Light attempting to eliminate each other and the presence of that conflict has almost no weight at all in this film. What we get is a rather bland crime drama where the odd musings and actions of L feel completely out of place and context and Light doesn’t nearly seem like the brilliant tactician we know until the very end. L’s breakdown at the end also feels very out of character and lazy, which supports the idea that they didn’t believe audiences could be entertained by two characters outdoing one another (without a fight breaking out between them).
The Problem With Misa
Mia is significantly better than Misa’s character in the TV show … there I said it. That’s literally one of the few things being talked about in this adaptation. In the anime, Misa is basically a lap dog to Light. However in this version, Mia craves power and eventually wants to usurp Light. That creates a much more interesting, though still poorly executed dynamic. It’s fairly obvious what’s going on about halfway through the film, but this allows Mia to maintain some power over her life decisions and directions. Misa however just wants to serve Light even to her detriment so I give this movie version a ton of props for cleaning up some of the more poisonous and misogynistic traits of the television show. Had they sold us on Mia and Light’s relationship more, this could have been one of the stronger changes for this adaptation.
Last Thoughts & Conclusion
Willem Dafoe wasn’t in this film nearly enough, probably to save some cash on Ryuk’s CGI or Dafoe’s contract. Regardless, it’s a real shame; His interactions with Light were enjoyable and his voice delivery was a great. I wouldn’t have immediately thought about Dafoe in this role, but now that he has, it’s hard to imagine someone else doing it.
There were a few questionable editing spots, but I will have to say I was rather delighted by the lighting choices in this film. I realize that’s a odd thing to pick out, but particularly I loved the recreated cafe shots and the use of lighting in the scenes where Mia and Light walked under neon in Seattle. They stood out to me from the rest of the movie and contrasted sharply with the downtrodden, darker color palette used for most of it.
Overall, if your a fan of the series, you may appreciate the nods this film attempts to do. Messing up one of the central battles depicted in the show however will likely turn off most fans on top of all the over changes. Even setting that aside, most fans and casual moviegoers will likely pass this one as there simply isn’t enough to hook you in less than 2 hours.
Netflix’s Death Note: 4 out of 10
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