Netflix’s live-action adaptation of Death Note is just as bad as everyone says it is.
I’m a pretty big fan of the Death Note series. I’ve just recently finished the anime, and I read the manga from start to finish some time ago. I’m also aware that Japan made their own live-action movies for the series, and even a standalone live-action movie about L. I haven’t watched them yet, but they’re on my already massive “To Watch” list.
So when Netflix announced that they were doing their own live-action version of Death Note, I was skeptical but still intrigued. Netflix has a habit of churning out woke garbage, and the concept of someone finding a Death Note and basically deciding to become a god definitely had the potential to be abused for a political agenda. Were they going to turn Light into another Trump allegory and use the movie as commentary about why anyone who’s even remotely conservative is an evil Nazi fascist? I wasn’t very reassured when it was announced that Light would be a white American and L would be black.
The movie came out in 2017 and was universally panned. I didn’t bother watching it until recently, when I decided that I would review it after doing a short review of the Death Note manga as part of my “AJ’s Anime and Manga List” series. Everyone told me not to watch it, that it was horrible, it had no redeeming qualities, it butchered the legacy of the series. Come on, it couldn’t be that bad, now could it?
The movie wasn’t woke propaganda like I thought it was going to be, but given what we got I’d rather it have been woke. They took the source material, wiped their asses with it, then used it to scrub the toilet.
The biggest and most glaring issue is that they completely changed how the Death Note works.
In order to kill someone with the Death Note, you need to know their full name and their face. It was literally the most important rule the book had. The directors of the Netflix remake opted to ignore this trivial little detail and instead allowed Light to control Watari just by using the name “Watari”. Never mind that “Watari” was just an alias in the original series, or that the Light in the Netflix remake didn’t bother to include a last name. Also, if you don’t specify how the person dies they simply have a heart attack. None of this “Dealer’s choice” bullshit where Ryuk decides to have Watari gunned down by a SWAT team sent by L.
They followed this up by saying that you can write someone’s name down then stop the death by burning the page.
The Death Note doesn’t work this way. At all. Once you write someone’s name in the book that’s it, no backsies. Even if you concoct some elaborate scenario where you (or rather, Ryuk for some reason) make a Ferris wheel collapse and manipulate a falling page of the Death Note to conveniently land in a burn bin, the person whose name is written will still die.
I could probably write an entire article just on every rule they changed, but there’s honestly so much more wrong with this movie that I still want to write about so if you want to gripe about any rule change in particular feel free to leave a comment and I’ll join in with you.
The acting was pretty much garbage, with some minor exceptions. The only two actors that did even remotely a good job were LaKeith Stanfield as L and Willem Dafoe as Ryuk, and even then they couldn’t really do much about the fact that they had a bum script. Usually when preparing for a role in a live action series based on a comic or cartoon actors will at least attempt to familiarize themselves with the source material. For example, Henry Cavill was a fan of The Witcher series, that’s why his portrayal of Geralt of Rivia was good. None of the actors in the Netflix Death Note save for Stanfield and Dafoe seemed like they even bothered to read the Wikipedia page for their characters much less read the manga or watch the anime. At least pretend like you give a shit about the fandom.
L was practically spot-on at first, and would have been the movie’s only saving grace had they not made his character literally abandon everything that L was in the original Death Note. Stanfield had L’s quirky behavior down pat for the first half of the movie. Sure, having him openly hold a press conference was questionable, but Stanfield didn’t write the scene and he still managed to make it kind of work because he still acted like L. Hiding his face with a gaiter and a hoodie was also a nice touch.
Then Watari went missing, and so did Stanfield’s performance.
In the original series, L and Watari are both killed at the same time by a rogue shinigami who is trying to protect Misa. In the Netflix version, Light uses the Death Note to send Watari on a hunt to find L’s real name. L in the original series is cool, confident, and clever when it comes to the hunt for Kira. Netflix L flips out and aggressively confronts Light the moment things go wrong. He then has an FBI SWAT team gun down Watari to protect his own anonymity. After that L storms Light’s house and has the police turn the place inside out looking for evidence that Light is Kira.
What made the original so good was the game of cat and mouse between Light and L. Both characters were smart, and were constantly anticipating the other’s next move. It was like watching Batman go up against Batman in terms of the insane amount of prep work both sides did. In the end Light was only able to beat L by tricking Rem into breaking the rules to protect Misa. The Netflix adaptation completely abandoned that battle of wit and cunning in favor of making L completely lose his shit the moment things start going wrong. He even chases after Light with a gun! L was supposed to be about proving Light’s guilt beyond a shadow of a doubt, not just killing Light because he strongly believes that Light is Kira. As one final “Fuck you” to any fans of the original series, the last scene has L finding a page from the Death Note in Mia’s house and debating writing Light’s name in it. Props to LaKeith Stanfield for his great portrayal of L, but fuck the writers for sticking him with a shit script that pissed all over the source material and made him ruin that portrayal later.
I also want to say that Willem Dafoe as Ryuk was actually a good choice. I’m not happy that they made Ryuk out to be some evil asshole (he’s basically chaotic neutral in the original series), but Dafoe managed to make the change not as bad as it could have been. Who else could really play a shinigami besides the Green Goblin? Again, another great casting choice squandered by a weak script.
All in all, this movie wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t tried to be an adaptation of the original Death Note series. A better idea would have been to have it take place in the same universe as the original series, but make it its own thing with new characters, maybe 10 years after the events of the original series. Instead of Light and Mia (who I assume was supposed to be Misa) you could have used any names and left them as high school kids. Instead of having LaKeith Stanfield play L, have him be another kid from Wammy’s House working under Near (give him another letter name, like “O”). Keep Dafoe as Ryuk, but have him be more neutral like he was in the original series. You can even have Ryuk make a few references to Light. Focus more on building suspense by having “O” and the main character fight to stay one step ahead of each other like L and Light did.
And, for fuck’s sake, follow the damn rules! There was literally no need to change any of the rules from the original Death Note, I’m not sure why the writers strayed this far from the source material. The movie had potential, but that potential was wasted by making it some bizarrely stupid mix of the original series and unnecessary new material.
Supposedly they’re working on a sequel, and the director said they’re taking the criticisms of the previous movie into account. Still, I’m not sure how they’re going to fix things at this point. They screwed up so many key elements of the original story that they’ve written themselves into a corner. You have Light’s dad knowing his son is Kira, an angry L is out to kill Light, and Misa has been killed off. I don’t know what you could possibly do now while even coming close to respecting the original source material. I’d say scrap the entire thing at this point and try again with a better script and some fresh actors.
Overall, this movie isn’t the worst thing I’ve ever seen, and someone who’s never seen the original Death Note before might kind of enjoy it. But fans of the original series will be highly disappointed at the half-baked story, the subpar acting, and the gross distortion of the source material.
I rate the Netflix adaptation of Death Note a 3/10. This movie deserved every bad review that it got, don’t waste your time watching it.