What went wrong with Netflix’s Death Note

Alright, so people have been putting down this movie based on its trailers and the west’s previous inability to adapt originally anime and manga works into live action since it was originally announced.

I was one of the few people who said that while the trailers don’t necessarily depict a good movie but the main take away should be that it’s not an adaption of the original, it’s more of a spin off, or else-world story. Taking the same concept and flipping it a bit. Which is what this story needed. Death note has had: the original manga, an anime adaption, a live action movie adaption in Japan, live action tv drama. All of which depict the same characters and almost the exact same story. Hell if I’m not mistaken there is even a musical. The sad part is Death Note is a great concept with lots of themes and opportunities which simply aren’t the focus and therefore are not explored to a satisfying extent. This story with new characters (although they have the same names) and a slightly different set of rules for the Note has the ability to do so. A trailer is not always an accurate representation of the film’s quality, but it was quite clear that this ‘adaption’ was very different.

To truly understand why Netflix’s Death Note was so ‘ehhhh’ at best we need to understand what makes a good adaption. The first thing to note here (pun intended) is that this adaption is made for a completely different audience, and so changing the setting and personalities of the characters to be more ‘western friendly’ (for lack of a better phrase in my current rage) is totally okay. The main thing any adaption should accomplish is… well adapting. I.e it needs to keep the core the same but shift the moving parts. And yes the characters in death note are to be considered moving parts, not the core. Many will say the core of the original Death Note was Light, L and their game of wits. Those who would say this are not looking at the show properly. I would know as this was my opinion, until I re-watched it with a more active analysis this summer. The core of Death Note is the exploration of justice, self-righteousness, sociopaths and obsession. Or more concise and precise it is the study of a people and justice when they come into contact with power beyond them. In the original’s case this meant watching the uncovering of a closet narcissist and sociopath, or watching the decline simple minded intellect, depending on how you view it. The main idea being that it is a study of a character in relation to the Death Note.

This is where Netflix’s film fails. While the core idea of studying themes and characters and how they develop around the Death Note is there, it is no longer the core. What went wrong to be concise and simple was not characters, nor ideas, nor the plot points, but the fact that plot was favored over character development. The more emotional L can work fine. The more basically unrecognizable Light can make for a more relatable character study. The more proactive and dare I say sociopathic Mia (or Misa) makes for a beautiful cast to explore. Especially in Mia’s case who was infinitely more interesting of a character in this version, and who was the only one to inspire any hope in me that the film might become better as it continues (spoiler alert it doesn’t).

That’s in theory why it went wrong, in terms of what was actually bad about the film, it was the pacing. Dialogue wasn’t particularly bad, characters were interesting, but not fleshed out a problem of the pacing, and there were too many ‘plot points’ a problem that could have been fixed by pacing, or by reducing the number of key points in the film. See… it’s quite simple, to create a character study one must first flesh out the character, then develop then deconstruct. This is what the original does so well. Light is fleshed out and fully understood before meeting L for the first time. He is developed for the majority of the season. And deconstructed in the final arch. The Netflix adaptation has no fleshing, little development and a lackluster deconstruction, quite simply because that wasn’t the focus. This is the route of the problem which resulted in the weird pacing, unnatural romance, unstable characters and so on. None of the specific events were necessarily bad decisions they just needed more time in the right places to make them feel natural and impactful.

The improvements that could have made this a good borderline amazing movie (depending on some other factors) would be if Mia was focused on more. Light, Mia and L were all fleshed out as individuals. The plot was much less cluttered, or the story was split into two separate films each being around 100–130 minutes long. Light didn’t just cave and tell Mia about the Death Note after her asking once… I mean come on like give that very important point in your story some thought to make it believable. When shit hits the fan at the end dedicate more time to allowing each character to show their true colors. Spend more time in the middle developing the characters.

As you can see a lot of the issues are time related. Now that doesn’t mean a longer film would have sufficed as better, because the reason these timings were issues was because the wrong things were the focus to the writers. I want to make clear before I sign out that what bothered me the most about this tragedy of an attempt at adapting such a compelling concept is that the writers had a lot of the right ideas. Making each character more relatable. Switching up who the ‘real Kira’ is. Giving Mia (or misa) more to do. Relating the story of Light and Mia to Icarus. Themes of god, and justice. These were all great ideas cluttered by potentially decent plot which was shoved into such little time that I never felt like I had breathing room to learn about the characters because something else in the story was being introduced or setup.

Another sad part about this is in the end we all lose: Death Note purists who hate change will feel like they were right because we all think this was pretty bad, those of us who had hope were disappointed and will never heard the end of it from purists, anime will get a bad rep, Death Note will get a bad rep, Netflix and studios will begin to think that perhaps it is impossible to adapt anime for the west properly (which isn’t true again this could’ve been good but someone in charge made some bad decisions with the focus of the writing), anime fans believe that Hollywood and western studios don’t know how to write for anime (even though they got some stuff right, but again wrong focus).

Anyways I am likely to talk about this in video format on my YouTube channel in coming months, so if that’s something your interested in keep your eyes peeled, and within the next few day myself and liquid soap will record and release a podcast talking about this film. I however needed to talk about this right away so I thought Medium be the place to go.