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Death Note – 2017 Movie Review

Death Note (poster)Death Note is a Japanese manga series created by Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata about a teenage genius, Light Yagami, who one day finds a notebook capable of killing any person whose name is written. Choosing to use the notebook to rid the world of criminals, Light comes into conflict with the genius detective known only as L, who tries to hunt him down in a psychological game of cat and mouse. Since its original publication in 2003, Death Note has gone on to inspire novels, numerous films, a live-action TV miniseries, a musical (no seriously, that’s actually a thing) and, most famously of all, a 26 episode anime series.

It’s also probably one of my favourite series of all time.

I first watched the anime when I was 13 and it’s impossible to overstate the effect it ended up having on my life. Not only did it kick-start my own love for anime and manga, but it also introduced me to psychological thrillers in general and really expanded my horizons on how to create tension and conflict without necessarily resorting to action beats. Plus the intelligent characters and high-concept psychological mind games have bled pretty heavily into my own development as a writer. I could pick out plenty of moments from my own writing and think, “Yeah, that was at least partially inspired by Death Note.”

So, needless to say, I really owe a lot to the series. And, as a result, it was kind of difficult for me to go into Netflix’s recent live-action adaptation (which I got to see in an actual cinema a day early, courtesy of London’s Frightfest) with a completely open mind. But I will say I did try to give it a chance. I was prepared for changes, I know the complexities of adapting such a work and I was perfectly willing to try and accept the movie as its own thing, regardless of the source material.

Unfortunately, by the end, I hated this movie. I hated it a lot. I haven’t seen an adaptation so badly miss the point of its source material since the 1999 The Haunting remake.

Death Note (anime)See, the thing that really made the original Death Note so entertaining was the rivalry between Light and L. The tense, psychological warfare that ensued as the two genius both attempted to out-think, out-wit and corner the other. Most of the best moments come when these two flex their mental wits against each other, to the point where they can make even a seemingly-friendly game of tennis seem like serious conflict of mind.

The Netflix movie, on the other hand, decided that nah, all that stuff didn’t really seem all that important. Obviously what people really wanted to see as the main focus of the story was a vapid teenage romance between an idiotic hormonal Light and his psycho girlfriend with power issues who you barely even need a minute to realise is going to end up eventually betraying him. Oh and lots and lots of gore and gruesome deaths. Sure, we can maybe keep L as a side focus, but let’s just toss all the stuff that made him such an awesome and interesting character and turn him into a gibbering idiot halfway through.

Now, I know I should probably not be comparing this film to the source material so much, but it’s so difficult because there’s so much this movie gets just plain wrong compared to said source material. I don’t mean changed, I mean wrong. Changes I could understand, because that is the nature of an adaptation, but this movie makes changes that not only don’t make sense but actively undermines the film. From minor stuff, like Light being pressured into his first kill (which severely affects the direction of his character) to wholesale scenes/moments that are clearly meant to be homages to similar scenes in the original but also clearly don’t work because they sucked out everything that made said scenes so great in the first place.

Take, for example, the press conference where L first makes his big introduction to Light and the world at large. In the original series, it’s a fantastic introduction to our main antagonist as he shows off his fierce intelligence by cornering and outwitting Light in a way no other character has done before. It’s a major moment in the show and it certainly feels like it. Hell, it’s probably one of my favourite scenes in all of media. Compare, however, to the movie version where it feels like an afterthought, sucks all of the interesting parts and ultimately doesn’t make much sense if you think about it. Yet the film treats it as if it is still supposed to carry the same dramatic tension. Which it does not. It’s just kind of dumb.

Death Note (screenshot)

Honestly, that could be a good sum-up for the movie. Just kind of dumb. Almost every character or aspect in this film is fiercely stupid compared to their original counterparts. From Light, who decides to immediately to show his murderbook to a girl he barely knows in an attempt to get into her pants, to L who decides to directly confront Light at a café, not in an attempt to corner him (like in the original series) but for more or less no reason. And then breaks into Light’s house to try and browbeat him into confessing when his police chief dad is right there. And also decides to let his aide/parental figure walk around showing his real name and face while investigating the guy who only needs a name and face to kill you! And-

Ahem. Well, needless to say, L got really shafted in this adaptation.

Death Note (screenshot 1)

To be fair, there are still a couple of good points to be found in this movie. The actors do a fairly solid job with the material given, the direction is decent and Willem Dafoe just plain blows it away as Ryuk, the sinister Death God who watches over the notebook. He’s easily the MVP of the movie and honestly one of the few things that feels like an actual improvement from the source material. But that doesn’t make up for the rest of the movie feeling like a slap in the face to fans of the original.

The fact of the matter is, as an adaptation, Netflix’s Death Note is garbage. And as its own thing, it’s still fairly bad. The characters are idiots, the plot twists are mostly predictable and it focuses on the stupidest aspects of its own story. Perhaps if you’ve never seen or read the original series, you might enjoy it some but, quite frankly, I’d just rather you go watch the original Death Note. It’s so much better and so much more worth your time.


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