What would you do if the power to decide who lives and who dies were in your hands? Or I suppose the most important question here is, what would you do if you had the power to make any type of adaptation of an international hit? Would you use that power for good and do everything you could to please fans worldwide and tell a compelling story, or would you abuse your power for a quick cash grab? The jury’s still out on the film as a whole, but it looks like the trailer for the long-awaited DEATH NOTE Netflix adaptation from Adam Wingard speaks for itself.
If that trailer looked good to you, then welcome newcomer to your very first Death Note story! I sincerely hope you enjoy the film and will check out the original manga and anime one day. Honestly though, if that trailer looks like your jam, you should probably stop reading here, because I have very few positive feelings about this upcoming adaptation. Still here? Ok, I warned you.
If for some reason, you don’t already know, the story of DEATH NOTE revolves around a brilliant high school student named Light Yagami who randomly sees a notebook fall from the sky while looking out the window during class. Curious, Light retrieves the notebook, known as the Death Note, and quickly finds out it has the power to murder anyone as long as you know their name and their face. It doesn’t take long for this brilliant mind to develop a godcomplex and start murdering criminals on a large scale. The mass killings attract the attention of a world-famous detective known only as L to track down this cause of these murders. What follows is an extremely compelling game of cat and mouse, with the detective and the mass murderer constantly trying to stay one step ahead of one another. The series in every incarnation has its flaws, but the majority of the series is a thrilling romp with many twists and turns that constantly keeps you guessing as to who will end up outsmarting who in the end.
Adaptations are difficult, especially when you have a passionate fan-base. As such, I tried to be fair, I tried to be optimistic, I tried to reserve judgement. I said I would wait for a trailer, and one has finally appeared. If you know anything about your resident Horror Chickk, you know I love Death Note. I love the manga, I love the anime, I love the musical (which is literally the best thing you will find on this or any other world). I have written about this upcoming film on multiple occasions and about my mixed feelings as news kept emerging about its production. Well, now that an official teaser has been released, I can honestly say I think everyone involved in this production completely missed the mark on what the source material is about.
Let’s start with the obvious, I am still not a fan of the whitewashing. With GHOST IN THE SHELL about to be released in theaters, and the recent backlash against what is being considered Netflix’s first failure, IRON FIST, I maintain my previous position that this story should have revolved around a Japanese-American family, and I will continue to be disappointed by the decision to cast Nat Wolff as Light Turner and Margaret Qualley as Mia Sutton. I applaud the decision to open up diverse casting to other characters, as the mysterious L will be played by Keith Standfield. However, that does not change the fact that this is an inherently Japanese story, and making the main character white shows a misunderstanding of a lot of the subtext in the original story about the state of Japan at the time of the series’ release. However, as I have said my peace about whitewashing in Hollywood on multiple occasions, that is all I will say on the matter: I’m disappointed and whitewashing the characters misses a lot of the point of the story.
Instead, let’s talk about aesthetic and character. If you know anything about Adam Wingard, you can tell immediately that this trailer definitely showcases his style. Wingard is well known in horror circles for the fantastic horror-comedy YOU’RE NEXT and more recently the 2016 BLAIR WITCH sequel (which was better than you’d expect, but not as good as it could have been). Mixed feelings on long-awaited sequels aside, Wingard is a talented director, and if you like his visual style, you will probably dig the aesthetic of this film. However, after seeing this trailer, I don’t think his style was right for this adaptation. Light Yagami was a clean-cut sociopath who does what he does largely because his brilliant mind is bored of his upper-middle class lifestyle. Light Turner looks like a troubled youth who, quite frankly doesn’t look like he’s showered in the past week. Of course he’s different, you might be thinking to yourself, making him an American teenager means you have to add a level of relatable angst for the young Western market. You pair that with Wingard’s gritty and grungy style, and you it seems you have Light Turner. I would disagree with you on this front, as there already seemed to be a perfect template for an American Light:
One of the reasons no one suspects Light is because he looks like a model citizen, and he is able to maintain this façade throughout the series, even when the investigation begins to close in on him. He’s much more American Psycho than he is YA Novel teen heartthrob (minus the part where he actually gets his hands dirty, that’s not really Light’s style). Moving the story to America also seems to have incorporated some typical High School clique troupes within this story, as one of the first shots is of a cheerleader smoking during practice. Adaptations should most definitely be allowed certain degrees of freedom, but I have a hard time imagining how high school troupes and angst could add anything of relevance to a plot about a mass murderer with a magic weapon at his disposal. Finally, there’s the setting of the story. A common refrain throughout the original series is that the Light and his companion Ryuk see the world as rotten. Despite the pristine appearance of society, crime runs rampant, allowing our main character to justify what he does in his own mind as cleansing the world. However, the world in which Light lives is one of privilege. Because of his intelligence, he doesn’t have to work hard to excel, and because of his family’s hard work, he doesn’t have to support himself. Society may be rotten, but his life certainly isn’t. Based on this trailer, there seems to be no indication that what society looks like on the surface doesn’t reflect what the world is actually like will play any kind of role in the central themes of this movie. Looking at this world, from Light Turner’s perspective, it appears as though his world is rotten through and through. This could still be compelling character motivation, but I have a hard time picturing that justification being as compelling as the original.
The one positive thing I have to say about it is that our brief look at the Shinigami Ryuk, the Japanese death god that gives Light the notebook, looks genuinely stellar. Casting Willem Dafoe to provide the voice of a character who is lovable and terrifying by turns was the best decision made in this entire production. If there’s anyone who can pull that off besides Shidou Nakamura and Brian Drummond, it’s definitely him! His brief VO was the one shining light in an otherwise bleak look ahead at this next addition to the franchise.
I know that my harsh look at what is in all honestly a trailer might seem overly critical, after all, I’ve certainly been wrong before, and I am happy to admit when I am wrong. I delight when a piece of fiction I was skeptical about manages to win me over, but aside from Dafoe, there is nothing in this trailer that makes me look forward to seeing this incarnation of a series I love. Instead, I think I’ll sit down and watch the musical again to see an adaptation done right.
DEATH NOTE will premiere on Netflix on August 25, 2017.
What did you think of the trailer? Are you as skeptical as I am or do you believe in Wingard’s vision for the film? Be sure to let us know @TheMovieChickk!
Can’t wait for more Death Note (or, like me, you desperately want to forget that this exists?), then check out the other live action film on Amazon.com!
If you want to know more about the Death Note Musical, check out my guest appearance on the podcast Love & Justice to hear us all gush about how it is the ultimate adaptation.