On this episode of The Nightly Chill, we look at Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Death Note!
When a high school student discovers a strange notebook with the power to kill anyone whose name he writes in it, he’ll quickly discover that playing God isn’t everything he expected it to be in Death Note.
A SUCCESS OF SORTS
Death Note, from director Adam Wingard, is the latest live-action adaptation of the hit comic and animated TV from Japan. But for all the interesting and smart choices made in the adaptation process, there’s several more bad ones that make it into the final movie.
Now there are already plenty of arguments being made on every blog, vlog, podcast, and Twitter account for how the movie fails to directly convert the source material to screen. But like with every adaptation, especially of such dense, lengthy material, a direct translation would never work as a feature film. It’s not just impractical but madness to even attempt to do so. Instead, it’s about taking what truly mattered in the original and trying to make it work in a new format, style, and run time.
And in that regard, the movie does succeed. Mostly.
Nat Wolff stars as Light Turner, a troubled but bright high school student who comes to hold the titular Death Note, meets the spirit of death who normally owns it, and then uses it to wage a one-man war on whoever he perceives as well-deserving of divine justice.
And along the way he meets, falls for, and partners with a lovely girl named Mia who shares his view on the world. And the two inevitably play a game of cat-and-mouse with the mysterious, super-genius detective known as L whose sole goal in life is to bring Light to justice.
The details of how this plays out–of the characters and their setting–are changed. That much is clear simply by watching the movie’s trailer. This is an American adaptation set in America with American actors.
But the overall movie does play out in a similar manner as the comic and TV series. If you’ve seen one, you know what to generally expect in the other.
In fact, the movie’s greatest success is in streamlining and simplifying the conflict for the better.
The Light seen in the comic and TV series is wholly unrelatable as a character. He’s a handsome, charming super-genius from a fairly well-off, prominent family. And he has no arc, as he’s already knee-deep in his own God complex. He’s a despicable, blood-thirsty narcissist with little regard for human life who only gets worse as the series drags on.
The Light in Wingard’s movie, however, is a more believable, troubled young man from a middle-class household. His use of the Death Note is more in line with what a bullied, angry but mostly good person would do. He sees himself as a hero righting the injustices of evil men.
That said, this Light isn’t perfect either. Because like the superheroes he idolizes, this Light suffers the lesson of what happens to those who don’t use their great power responsibly. Internal and external forces drive him to darker, more aggressive places. Especially as L grows closer to discovering his true identity.
And, thankfully, this war of morals and ethics between Light and L is not stretched on hour after hour to the point of losing any dramatic weight or purpose.
And it should also be made clear that the performances from both Lakeith Stanfield as L and Willem Dafoe’s vocal performance as Ryuk, the spirit of death constantly lurking in the shadows, are delightful. The rest of the cast fail to keep up, but are otherwise serviceable.
That all having been said, Wingard’s adaptation suffers from two glaring issues: pacing and staying true to the constantly shifting tone of the original–this serious but simultaneously not at all serious thriller.
Like the original, this movie approaches heavy, serious material with a number of wholly dead-serious scenes only for such things to be frequently ruined by some desire to be cool and stylish.
Now levity and humor are fine, and even necessary at times. But there’s a balance that has to be maintained. A decision has to be made where the movie is either a serious one with moments of levity…or a more stylish, fun movie with key moments of dramatic weight. Very rarely can you ride that fine line and succeed.
Death Note–both Wingard’s movie and the original series– suffers for thinking it can ride that line. I know there are fans of the original series, and there’s plenty there to enjoy. I’m not denying that or arguing against it. However, I stand by the idea that the series is enjoyed more by the ideas presented in it rather than the actual quality of the final product.
In fact, I would say this movie only magnifies the existing issues in the source material. The movie’s pacing is so quick and it’s material is so dense that there’s no time for anything to sink in. But at the same time, the characters are all about as “deep” as they’ve ever been presented. The drama is about as well-built. The tension is about as thick. That’s to say, of course, none of this is very good at all.
The point here is that in all iterations, the focus is always on showcasing certain scenes, certain beats or interactions. To relay some basic idea. But there’s little effort put into making any of it mean anything.
The movie–clocking in at about an hour and forty minutes–is far too eager to rush through its material to even consider slowing down long enough for anything to register. At the same time, the original comic and TV series both stretch the material painfully thin. The events in them are so drawn out– and in this very soap opera-like manner–that such things are diluted to the point of losing any impact.
The movie is not very good. That much is clear. But it’s a fairly true-enough adaptation that’s also fun in a guilty pleasure sort of way. And it’s likely fans of the franchise are going to be the only ones worked up by it in either direction.
Most other people–who will greatly outnumber fans of the property–are either going to be mildly pleased by it or generally nonplussed by what is ultimately a benign, forgettable movie.
Could it have been done better? Yes. Would it have come at the cost of more cuts and changes? Yes. But this is true of the original as much as this adaptation.
And with all that in mind: despite its faults and the unfair demands and expectations of the franchise’s fans, those looking for a quick, stylish jaunt into the bizarre would do just fine electing to CHILL with Death Note.