There’s something to be said for going into an adaptation with an open mind and not comparing it to the source material.
However, Netflix’s Americanized Death Note movie is absolutely terrible whether or not you consider the source material, so I might as well look at the two stories side by side and figure out what went wrong.
Death Note Netflix movie protagonist Light Turner (2017) vs the Death Note anime protagonist Light Yagami (2006)
Death Note, a Netflix Original Film directed by Adam Wingard, is adapted from the Japanese manga of the same name written by Tsugumi Ohba and illustrated by Takeshi Obata. And I use “adapted” in the loosest possible sense. There’s a scene in the movie where we pan across a room full of Japanese people who were brutally murdered by the movie’s American protagonist and it serves as a pretty apt metaphor for what the American version of Death Note did to its Japanese source material.
The movie follows Light Turner (who is just an average kid no one understands/school and dad and anti murder laws always giving him commands). He’s a sniveling edgelord teenybopper with terrible hair (just to give you a good idea of how wannabe-edgy he is, his locker literally has a “normal people scare me” bumper sticker in it). Within the first two minutes of the movie, I was applauding the stereotypical school bully for punching him in the face. Not a great sign.
Anyway, a magical notebook falls out of the sky and Light opens it to find instructions that basically say if he writes someone’s name in the notebook while visualizing their face, that person will die. The Death God Ryuk appears and talks him into killing people. (Doom and gloom up in Light’s room is broken instantly/by his magic little book and his pal Ryuk and committing felonies).
(Side-note: the school bully’s name was Kenny, and he was predictably Light’s first victim. But nobody- nobody- said “oh no, they killed Kenny! You bastards!”. Just another way this movie failed me).
The Death Note manga
The original Death Note manga had a very simple, but strong message- even someone who is supposedly a “model citizen” could quickly turn corrupt if given unlimited power. It doesn’t take a “devil” to corrupt humans or tempt them to kill- humans are perfectly capable of sliding down the slippery slope all on their own. That’s why in the manga, Light is a pretty much the perfect kid- attractive, popular, Japan’s number one student, someone who’d never broken a law in his life- a far cry from the faux-punk rebel selling test answers at school Netflix presents.
And in the original manga, Ryuk is a neutral figure. He simply lets the notebook drop and waits to see what humans will do with it because he’s bored. Of his own volition, Light becomes curious if it will work and writes a name in it. Then Light, again of his own volition, decides to go on a crusade to kill all he deems criminals. Ryuk simply appears to explain the rules. He never prompts Light to do anything. The manga makes it clear humans are the true force of chaos and violence, while our detached gods find our cruelty fascinating and unpredictable.
Netflix’s version goes the much more boring and banal route of making a Light a passive figure who’s basically intimidated into killing by a supernatural force. Netflix Death Note doesn’t care enough to say anything about human nature, it just likes the idea of scary demons and people being killed in ridiculous and gory ways. The movie also gives no explanation for why Ryuk is doing any of this or why this notebook even exists.
Light and Mia, Death Note (2017)
Meanwhile, instead of having his manga counterpart’s twisted sense of justice, American Light is motivated by wanting to bang a cheerleader, because that’s clearly a fascinating and worthwhile direction to take the story in. Mia, Light’s love interest, is Not Like Other Cheerleaders ™ - she looks down on them and hates participating in cheer activities. Which makes you wonder why she joined the squad in the first place, but the movie doesn’t bother to explain that because it would require giving her characterization beyond the Foul Temptress Corrupting Our Goodhearted Male Protagonist. She’s also the only named female character in the entire movie, by the way.
Let’s be clear here, the original Death Note manga was not great when it came to female characters. Every single one was either barely characterized, killed off rather quickly or solely motivated by their infatuation with a man- or all three, for some. So for this movie to somehow manage to be even more sexist than the manga was actually not something I was expecting- but by gum, they did it. It’s almost impressive.
Mia, who somehow has yet to be ousted from the cheer team, Death Note (2017)
Mia is actually not that far from manga Light in morality-she’s a fascinated by the Death Note’s power and quick to abuse it. But while manga Light was a fleshed-out character with a family, life and well-reasoned actions, Mia is a cypher with none of those things. In fact she straight up admits she has no character beyond how she relates to Light and the Death Note. “I’m a cheerleader, Light. Nothing I did before I met you mattered.” Actual line in this movie.
If Mia had actually taken over as protagonist by killing Light and taking his Death Note, that would have at least been daring and unexpected. But instead, we remain stuck with an incompetent, idiotic hero the movie tries to convince us is an intelligent, kind victim of circumstance we should root for…as he repeatedly kills dudes in unnecessarily painful ways for the sake of his boner. Now that Light has been robbed of his agency, the movie’s closest equivalent to the manga’s entertaining villain protagonist is the thinly-written unsympathetic woman manipulating him, because in this movie men only do bad things when women (or demons) (same thing, am I right) seduce them into it.
Light isn’t the only character gutted. His father, a sympathetic figure in the manga, seems to be incapable of expressing human emotion in the movie (his reaction to his wife’s murderer dying in a mysterious accident is “heh” and he seems utterly unconcerned about his son seeing a guy get decapitated).
L and Light, Death Note (2017)
There is one thing the movie does have in common with the manga- L is definitely the most interesting character in the story in both versions. Lakeith Stanfield seems to be the only actor who cared enough to turn in a decent performance and also the only one to glance at the at the source material. He mirrors manga L’s eccentric detective vibe quite well, right down the quirky mannerisms- the weird way of sitting, the sweets addiction, the clipped way of talking. He’s pretty sympathetic and would come off as actually intelligent with a better script. Unfortunately, he lacks a worthy opponent, so he can’t shine.
While the original manga had a tense, suspenseful cat-and-mouse game between Light and L where they outmaneuvered and out-gambitted each other, American Light is not competent or self-possessed enough for that. Far from engaging in a battle of wits with L, he basically confesses the second L confronts him. If our “genius detective” had thought to wear a wire, it would have been all over.
Light Turner, Death Note (2017)
In fact, the only time Light manages to pull a good gambit off is at the very end of the movie, and considering he’s been completely incompetent up to that point, it comes out of nowhere and is utterly unbelievable. But that sums up a lot of the movie. The plot is as thin as the characters. I mean, the entire thing hinges on the fact the dumbass main character couldn't be bothered to read the overly convoluted terms of service agreement for his magic murder book.
There ARE ways an American version of Death Note could have been worthwhile. The original was a story very rooted in a Japanese setting. If you put a story about kid who executes criminals from afar in an American setting, there’s all kinds of new wrinkles and things to explore- the possibility of racial bias in the justice system, for one. L being a black man who is forced to operate in the shadows and Light being the worshipped white boy who flagrantly gets away with murder was rife with potential if the movie bothered to explore it or even comment on it. Instead, we were clearly supposed to root for poor "victimized" Light over L, despite all the nasty implications that has. This movie was not interested in political nuance, or nuance period.
Meanwhile, the references to the story’s Japanese origins were downright laughable and insulting. Watari was the only Japanese character and he was a nonentity with a stupid catchphrase. Japan is represented through a kinky sex club and the yakuza, basically the height of lazy stereotypes. And let’s not get into the white protagonist pretending to be Japanese- that was a little too painfully on the nose.
The original 2006 live action Death Note movie
So in the end, there was nothing of value in the American Death Note, especially when far more decently-made live action versions of the story have already been come from Japan (hilariously, the CGI for Ryuk was better in the Japanese live action Death Note movie made more than a decade ago). All we got from this version was the whitewashing of several characters, some tired high school movie clichés, laughable gore, tons of plot holes, a forgettable pop soundtrack and the reduction of a competently told tale about the ease with which humans can succumb to corruption to a painfully incompetent black-and-white teenage edgelord power trip.
It’s a terribly paced and plotted story with mostly bland, unlikable characters that is utterly without complexity. To add insult to injury, it’s blatantly racist and sexist and grossly misunderstands what made its source material compelling and popular. The best thing I can say for if it was unintentionally funny a few times and I was able to finish watching it (while constantly checking my watch to see how long I had left) which puts it above the likes of Dragonball Evolution. But in the end, I really wish the American Death Note had stayed dead in the water.