When you’re judging a work of adaptation, what is the proper metric? Are you to judge it as an individual piece or are you to judge it on how it alters and adapts the original? Personally, I’m a fan of mixing both.
Faithfulness is by no means a virtue. If it was, The Godfather would have extensive discussions of big dicks and deep vaginas. But understanding ineffable qualities that work about original stories is necessary to crafting new ones out of the material.
In other words, I don’t demand that the story stay the same. On the contrary, I’d rather see new and unique takes on the same material. But adaptation should be justified, should create something more worthwhile rather than altering for the worst. An unfaithful adaptation of brilliance is worth infinitely more than a faithful adaptation that doesn’t translate to the new medium.
Alas, that’s not really a conversation we have to have around Death Note. Adam Wingard’s Netflix Original adaptation of the popular Japanese manga/anime is an abysmal original work that is only topped by how deeply it fails as an adaptation of Death Note. It’s possible that no other film manages to so profoundly misunderstand what it adapts while managing to replace it with almost nothing of value.
The story takes the bare bones of the Japanese original. Light Turner (Nat Wolff) is a high school student (though here, he’s a bullied outcast) who finds a notebook falling out of the sky. This notebook, a Death Note, will kill anyone whose name is written in it. This notebook is accompanied by a death God Ryuk (Willem Dafoe) who only Light can see.
Along with his new girlfriend Mia Sutton (Margaret Qualley), Light begins to kill the deserving of the world, taking the name Kira (here apparently based on a Celtic word, though the movie stumbles ass-backwards into alluding to the original reason). He’s hunted down by L (Lakeith Stanfield), an eccentric detective who always seems just a step ahead of the game.
While I hate to go all nerd, the failures of Death Note as a stand-alone work are intrinsically linked with its failures as an adaptation. What’s so aggressively wrong here comes from what is wrong with the changes made at the core of this work.
White-washing is where this starts, though it is by no means its end. Death Note is a distinctively Japanese story while this one takes place with a non-Asian cast and is set in a Seattle that’s frankly hard to recognize minus a little B-roll footage. It starts by losing a specific sense of place. There’s no reason this story takes place in America, there’s nothing specifically American about much of the telling or about many of its concerns.
The adaptation removes cultural context as well as jobs for Asian actors and replaces it with nothing. A wealthy and successful white kid given the power of a God is a potent story now and is an adaptation of the story that could easily take place in an American context, but removing that and not replacing it with anything specific removes anything interesting from the story. There’s nothing unique about the telling, it doesn’t even manage to be a school shooter story, it barely manages to be a story about a mad God.
That removal of context and lack of replacement extends to its characters. I think specifically of Light, the character at the story’s center. In the original, Light was not an outcast, not a bullied kid. He was an attractive, brilliant man who had seemingly everything going for him, it explain the cat and mouse games and it explained how he got away with it for so long and it created an interesting thematic of somebody who had already been given the world asking for even more of its power. A condemnation and villainization of power and privilege, Light was the villain at the center for the story he drove.
This Light is none of those things and is replaced with an impossibly generic protagonist for this story. A kid no one likes who manages to find some grasp of popularity and power by pulling Mia in his orbit and becoming Lord Kira. It’s a hero story for a murderer, a lionization of a mad god. Death Note removes the ambiguity and replaces it with a generic heroic protagonist. One who is not, I must add, particularly bright. Light’s ability to keep this going strains credulity multiple times.
This is the issue at every step. Interesting dynamics and relationships are replaced with nothing but the same story remixed in a thousand teen movies and wedged awkwardly into this story. The reversal of dynamic between Mia and Light is of particular note as it somehow creates a character more misogynistic than the oft-problematic original, becoming a scheming temptress rather than a put-down Harley Quinn and seeks to absolve its white male protagonist from the villainy of the story by functionally turning her into the story’s villain.
It doesn’t help that Nat Wolff is just bland in this role. This is a talented cast and most of them are left with little to do in the way of interesting performance. This feels like the most bland way you could have adapted these characters. People are trying their best, but they feel snuffed under the story, especially Shea Wigham who does solid work with a role that could practically be mad-libbed.
This is with two exceptions that I will grant. Though Ryuk plays far too small a role in this film (likely given expense), Willem Dafoe’s vocal performance is top notch and a reminder of how much that many can do with just his voice.
The other exception is Lakeith Stanfield as L. The antagonist/hero of the story, Stanfield is so much better than the rest of the film it boggles the mind. Stanfield’s specific and quiet brilliance is an absolute delight to watch from the moment he shows up on screen. He’s just adapting the mannerisms, but the way he sits, the way he eats, the snake-like way he walks and moves is just pierfection. A character actor skill with a lead actor presence, Stanfield’s performance gives the often uneven material some sense of purpose in focus, especially in confrontation between him and Wolff in a coffee shop that may be the only scene in this movie that comes close to approaching the interesting story this could have been.
In fact, L’s character is the biggest signal towards the problems of this story. At its best, Death Note is a cat-and-mouse game, a villain evading capture and a hero constantly pushing closer and closer to victory. It’s the nature of the foundations of this story, a murderer who can kill from afar and leave no clues but the ones he chooses to reveal.
This Death Note completely avoids all of that and manages to replace it with nothing. Its cat-and-mouse is awkward and clumsy and reveals very little forethought or planning. There’s no compelling forward momentum, a series of incidents with almost no connective tissue between them. I’d say it feels like a TV show, but Death Note is entirely too rushed for that until it slows up considerably in its back half.
There is simply nothing outside of Stanfield that is truly compelling about Death Note. Wingard’s style is evident and at least finds a way to spice things up from time to time, but his gore-hound tendencies end up feeling more juvenile than shocking.
Death Note’s fundamental failure is that it took a story that is interesting and worthwhile and, given the option of altering the cultural context to address different issues, chose to strip the things that were interesting and worthwhile and replace them with clumsy reconfigurations, feeling like a feature length Sweded movie trailer.
Adaptation Grade: F