Alright, so last week I watched the movie adaptation of Stephen King’s Dark Tower series while I was on vacation. And you know, I liked it a fair bit. Idris Elba captured a pretty complex and emotive character, Matthew McConaughey was entertainingly loathsome, even the kid in the leading role was pretty effective. I thought it lost some steam in the third act, but overall I enjoyed myself. A light 7/10, maybe.
Now, I considered writing up a review for that movie, but I didn’t. Part of it was that I was busy, between vacation activities and preparing for a wedding. Part of it was also that film reviews aren’t my forte. Music reviews are something I’m more comfortable with, since I listen to lots of different kinds of music, but I don’t watch many movies. But the most important reason was that I’m not particularly familiar with the Dark Tower novels. I didn’t see that as an obstacle to watching and enjoying the film, but I could still tell that it probably wasn’t the most faithful adaptation, and I don’t want to review an adaptation if I can only tell you how it holds up on its own merits. Ideally, I’d want to do that and judge how well it manages its relationship to its source material.
Well, there’s a quick fix for that – review something I’m already well-acquainted with. And so here we are, the Netflix adaptation of the cult classic anime/manga series Death Note. For the uninitiated, a summary of the series: it’s about a brilliant Japanese high school student named Light Yagami, who comes across a magical book, the titular Death Note. If you write someone’s name in this book while thinking of their face, then that person dies. Light, a person of intensely strong ideals but not much humility, decides it’s his destiny to use the notebook to rid the world of crime, killing the world’s criminals to bring about utopia. The killing spree puts him in conflict with the police, as well as an anonymous detective known as L, and the two match wits against each other, and see whose code of justice will prevail in the world.
Now, like I said, this series is fondly remembered as a classic, with complex characters, highly cerebral mindgames, mostly between Light and L but also with others involved, and weighty themes regarding power and justice. Speaking for myself, what I love is that the story deconstructs the Shonen genre of Japanese manga and anime, best known in the West for series like Yu-Gi-Oh! and One Piece and Naruto. Just like in a lot of those stories, we follow a teenage boy who comes into a miraculous power, acquires a mysterious ally (Ryuk, the demonic figure who granted him the Death Note in the first place), and indomitable ideals, who sets out to save the world. The problem is that the power Light finds is inherently destructive, and his ideals blind him to the contradiction in becoming a murderer to bring peace to the world, and so soon enough it needs saving from him.
I don’t intend a long form essay on how amazing Death Note is, of course, so I’ll end it there, with the point being that the strengths of the original are primarily intellectual and psychological – Light and L are towering moral (although Light’s morals are beyond blinkered) and intellectual forces, the result being an amazingly dense series to digest. That’s why I don’t think previous efforts have been great successes. The 2015 TV series was hindered, well, primarily by the writing, which turns Light into an everyman, which misses the point that your average high school student probably wouldn’t have the iron-clad determination or the ability to try and create a utopian society. The 2006 film duology, for its part, suffers for, well, being two movies attempting to adapt a mid-length and, again, extremely dense series into 264 minutes of film. The schemes and the characters and the overall plot are so intense that you need to give them more time than that to develop.
And that finally brings me to this flick, a Netflix original that’s the first attempt by us Yanks to adapt the series. Now, the main controversy surrounding this movie was the fact that they decided to set the story not in Japan, but in Seattle, Washington, and to make the main characters Americans, with Light as a white teenager, and L (who resembles a scruffy human-Panda hybrid in the original) as a black teenager. We already had a major dustup earlier this year when a movie version of Ghost in the Shell came out, with Scarlet Johansson in the leading role instead of a Japanese actress. If anything, though, this Death Note movie took even more flack for “whitewashing” Japanese culture.
Personally, I wasn’t so concerned about that, for two reasons. The first being that several Japanese Death Note adaptations exist, so this isn’t crowding anything out. The second being that the cultural differences between Japan and America could allow the premise to be seen in a new light. American culture is extremely cynical about our justice system, with “Law and order” still a potent force – just ask our current President. And we can be quite vengeful towards people that we think wronged us, something exhibited in many of the wars we’ve fought. The point I’m getting at here is that if any culture would embrace Light Yagami’s theory of justice, and violently purge the criminal element from society, it’d probably be America.
No, what worried me about this adaptation was director Adam Wingard, whose resume mostly consists of horror movies. I can see where that leads, since the Death Note can kill a victim in any way that’s physically possible, but focusing on the gore and gruesomeness doesn’t seem like the most interesting angle to take. Still, how did this go?
Well, honestly, not well. This simply isn’t a very good movie. It’s not terrible, but it compromises exactly the elements that I was hoping it wouldn’t, especially Light and L’s characterization and ideals, and the result is a compromised vision that didn’t really understand its own strengths, and which gave even less time to develop its characters than previous adaptations.
Now, about the horror elements. This is a gory movie, which exploited its R rating to the hilt in showing the grotesque ways a creative high schooler can imagine people dying. Thankfully, I wouldn’t say that it was really the focus of the movie, since the gorefest ends around the halfway mark, and things get more character-driven. That said, the pretenses towards something bloody like the Saw franchise are kind of a waste of time, since they don’t advance the plot much, and if anything, they complicate the character portrayals.
Now, in the original, Light Yagami generally uses the notebook’s default cause of death, a heart attack, to kill his victims. He reserves more creative deaths for when they service a larger scheme. This makes sense when you think about it, because as my summary implied, he’s a character who’s extremely obsessed with his own virtue. He sees himself as a savior, “The God of the New World”, as he puts it, and part of the reason he takes the path he does is to avoid admitting to himself that he’s done wrong. And it’s easier to ignore the blood on your hands if it’s not splattered across the city streets.
And that brings me to the character changes, since Light Turner (the Americanized name in this version) is a different customer from Light Yagami. Yagami’s belief in his moral purity was so strong that it justified progressively greater acts of depravity, and he never seemed to understand what was slowly happening to him. Light Turner has far more self-awareness about what his crusade demands of him, and he steadfastly refuses to turn his power on the innocent, even law enforcement hunting him.
And therein lies the main problem with this movie, in that it tries quite hard to have Light earn our sympathies. Where in the original, Light initially uses the Death Note out of ennui, and a lack of purpose in his life, this Light has actually been victimized by the crime he seeks to destroy, which cost him his mother in the backstory and which he sees around him at school every day. On top of that, where the original Light was almost entirely self-motivated, here he’s pushed onto the path he takes, both by the Shinigami Ryuk, who threatens to put the Death Note in the hands of someone less scrupulous if Light doesn’t use it, and by his love interest, Mia Sutton. By the end, Light wields the Death Note primarily out of fear that it’ll be used by someone more ruthless than him if he loses it.
Now, I’m not a fan of this re-interpretation, but it does lend itself to two of the film’s main strengths. First, Ryuk. Played excellently by Willem Dafoe, he’s one horror element in this movie that does work well, with fantastic use of practical effects to create an otherworldly demon. What’s great about him is that his character is reinterpreted, but not as much as you’d expect, which plays with a fan’s expectations in just the right ways. The original Ryuk drops a Death Note into the human world for curiosity and amusement, to see what a human would do with that kind of power, and while Light Yagami delivers in spades, Ryuk is happy to sit back and enjoy the show. In that capacity, he becomes almost adorable in places.
Dafoe’s Ryuk is different, in that he’s more overtly malevolent in his intentions, and he does far more to steer Light into directions he’d otherwise balk at traversing. This does create one issue, where Light discovers a warning written in the notebook, telling him that Ryuk isn’t to be trusted, and that he’s not Light’s friend. This would have fit in a lot better with the original Ryuk, who had the same ruthlessness, but hid it behind enough charming mannerisms that you could forget how dangerous he was. Dafoe lacks the pretense, so it’s out of place. In a way, though, that may have been the point, since it leaves the audience unsure of just how far Ryuk is willing to be a passive observer in the unfolding events. So much the good.
The other part I see as a strength is Mia Sutton, played by Margaret Qualley. She’s the American version of Misa Amane, Light’s most devoted follower in the original series. Where with Ryuk they toed a very careful line in how far they were willing to depart from his original character, Mia’s differences are much starker, but in a way that still resembles the source material if considered carefully. Misa from the anime is primarily remembered as a lovesick doormat for Light, cheerfully committing murders with the Death Note at his whim and never questioning his judgment or his overt lack of reciprocated affections. Her cutsieness concealed a seriously cold fish, but it was in no way an act.
Mia, well, on the surface, she doesn’t resemble Misa Amane much at all other than as Light’s girlfriend, and even there, Light Turner is actually interested unlike his counterpart. She doesn’t seek Light out as the vigilante responsible for killing off criminals, she’s a schoolmate who he confesses his secret to just as he’s starting out. And most of all, she’s willing to take their war on crime to lengths that Light won’t, to the point of openly defying his wishes.
This here is pretty much what Light and Misa’s anime relationship was like.
This seems alien to Misa Amane, and yet, in a way, I’d argue it isn’t. Or rather, that it can be reconciled in light of the changes to her backstory. Misa sought out Light Yagami after learning of his role in purging crime because she wanted to thank him – one of his victims had killed her parents and escaped justice, leaving her with nothing to live for besides repaying that debt. And really, that sense of emptiness explains a lot about Misa’s character, when you realize that she doesn’t place much value on her own miserable life. That’s why she’s so reckless on the show, taking suicidal risks that Light would blanch at doing himself. Her spontaneity breaks the stalemate between Light and L and dictates most of the plot in the middle of the series.
Mia lacks that tragedy in her life, which explains why her devotion to Light rather than his power is so much weaker in this movie. But more than that, she represents what Misa was before she dedicated herself to serving Light Yagami. I said before that Misa was remembered as Light’s doormat, but she didn’t start off that way. In fact, when she first appears, the other characters see her as a more ruthless, less idealistic version of Light. What this movie does is realize that initial impression in full.
On their own, I think these reintepretations of Ryuk and Mia are actually quite fascinating. The problem is that they put the two into the role of Light’s corrupters, nudging him forward when his own resolve fails him. And that’s just not as compelling for our lead, since it’s his misgivings rather than his fanatical devotion to a cause that drive his character through the second half of the movie. By the end, the confrontation isn’t so much between Light and L as it is between Light and his own corrupted vision.
And that brings me to L, the only character that I would really say got butchered. The focal point in the original series was this Holmes and Moriarty rivalry between the great killer and the great detective, and that’s the main thing that its fans loved about it. Here, the focus is mostly on the murder-fueled romance between Light and Mia, and their eventual parting of the ways over the lengths that each is willing to go to for their vision. As a result, L gets short shrift. It’s not the lack of focus that rankles me, though, it’s L’s incompetence. The original writers called L the smartest character in a series full of geniuses, and it showed in his powerful yet well-explained deductions, his calm stoicism in every situation but one (and really, that scene felt jarringly out of place), and the way he countered Light at every turn despite knowing nothing about the Death Note himself.
This L, though? Not only are his numerous missteps a plot point, one of them, a precaution he didn’t take with his allies that he did in the anime, pretty much gets the third act going. This is pretty sad considering that he started off promisingly enough, zeroing in on Light in ways that were condensed, but honestly not terribly different from the original. But once the two rivals meet face to face, L goes downhill. The main problem is the disappearance of his trademark stoicism, which actually drives a wedge between him and Light’s policeman father when he tries to physically accost Light under pressure. Ultimately, though, I find myself having to agree with the professional reviewers I saw who dismissed L’s character as an afterthought in this movie. It’s really quite depressing how the deuteragonist of the series becomes all but superfluous in the climax of this movie.
So, the bottom line here is that despite some creative reimaginings, the main characters from the series are badly compromised in their conception here. Another obstacle in realizing their potential is the dialogue, which is really quite weak. If there’s one sequence that I’d consider to be well-written, it’s that bit from the trailer when Ryuk introduces the Death Note to Light and tempts him into using it. Light still thinks he’s dreaming, and Ryuk decides to run with that, encouraging Light to see things as a fantasy with no real consequences, which is powerful because you realize that it’s not simply a way to ease Light into the first kill, but also Ryuk’s own attitude, and the one he wants Light to adopt. He came to our world for amusement and he has no emotional investment in any of us. He’d like Light to see things the same way, to act like he’s playing a video game. Or, well, watching a movie.
Most of the rest of the dialogue just lacks that same spark, though. One egregious example also from the trailers is from L’s first meeting with Light, where he explains his perceived role as a detective. “You’re the one who flew into the Sun,” he says. “I’m just here to make sure you burn.” Apart from being an obvious and not too creative Icarus allusion, it also gets the Greek myth wrong. Icarus didn’t fly into the Sun, but too close to it, and he didn’t burn to death, but rather had his wax wings melted and subsequently fell to his death. What’s sad about this one is that the actual myth is a pretty good foreshadowing of the ending, but you can tell they butchered it for a trailer line that’d play up the Light-L enmity that would ultimately be an afterthought.
Now, the plot. Apart from adapting the series which I’ve described already, this one differs when Light’s first major effort to uncover L’s true identity, with which he can kill the detective, goes awry, and leads pretty directly into the final confrontation. The problem, as I’ve alluded to repeatedly, is that Light isn’t committed to carrying out his vision in extremis, so he finds himself confronting the consequences of his own plans run amok. Even this might have been salvageable in some fashion, had the conflict led to Light making a concerted effort to reclaim control of his own crusade, to be waged on his terms. Instead, what we get is him cutting his losses at the end, and the greatest irony in the entire movie is that we only really get to see the fiendish levels of cunning that Light Yagami would exhibit in pursuit of his vision, when Light Turner decides to forfeit his. In fact, where the original Death Note was a clash between Light and L and their differing visions of justice, this movie concludes with both of them abandoning those visions for their own convenience.
Perhaps I should feel betrayed by this, but it just leaves me cold. I watched Death Note for the characters more than for the grand chess match between geniuses, but I enjoyed both of those elements, and only received some interesting character arcs in this movie, while others were compromised. Overall, this movie isn’t horrible, but neither is it good. I’d give it a 5/10, and I can’t really recommend this when you can watch the anime instead. It simply lacked the space and the audacity to realize these characters properly. To use its own words, it just wasn’t crazy enough.