Death Note (2017) Review

Title: Death Note
Director: Adam Wingard
Screenplay: Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, Jeremy Slater
Starring: Nat Wolff, Lakeith Stanfield, Margaret Qualley, Shea Whigham, Paul Nakauchi, Willem Dafoe
Released: 25ᵗʰ August 2017


In the process of adapting a book or television show to film, there are undoubtedly numerous considerations. However, before deciding what material to exclude, what to include, and how your version will differ in getting from point A to B, the first point of call is surely to read, watch and understand the source material. Once you know what makes the original work so compelling and unique, you can focus on those components when moving it over to a different format.

Death Note is a bad adaptation, pure and simple. It’s an utter bastardisation of the manga and it’s anime adaptation, and barely resembles what it is apparently based on. It’s as though the original work were a third or fourth reference, rather than the immediate source.

The major issues are in the plot and characterisation. The original version of Death Note is a psychological thriller and part police procedural, in which law enforcement attempt to track down a seemingly supernatural serial killer known as Kira, who begins cleansing the world of criminals. But at it’s heart, it’s a game of cat and mouse, where Kira and an enigmatic detective named L exchange metaphorical blows as they strive to put an end to each other.

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The Netflix film contains none of what made the original so compelling — no cat and mouse play, no cunning machinations, and none of what you loved about the characters. It is vapid, with the Death Note itself a gratuitous weapon that exists simply to set up a series of elaborate and violent deaths as the movie crudely maneuvers from one beat to the next. Tsugumi Ohba, the original writer of Death Note, employed the notebook in Machiavellian ways, but its use here is neither ambitious nor inventive.

The characters are a crowd of husks which exhibit very little range. Audiences enjoyed watching Light (and even rooting for him) in the original for the same reason they enjoy watching Frank Underwood; because he is utterly devious, compelling and charismatic. This new interpretation is simply unremarkable, and L has devolved from a calculated and level-headed oddity into an irrational hothead who lacks any sort of distinctive personality.

Following these characters is a chore when it should be a pleasure. Willem Dafoe and Shea Whigham give respectable performances, but their parts are extremely minor and Ryuk has been reduced from an amusing and impartial observer to something resembling a devil on the shoulder, which takes away all his quirks and charm.

The story itself follows a similar premise as the original, where a schoolboy named Light obtains a magical notebook that can kill, and ultimately decides to rid the world of criminals, adopting the handle Kira as he is tracked by a famous detective. However, it does not contain any of the same progression, set pieces or plot points as the original, and is utterly forgettable and at times so terrifically brainless. The story is essentially complete within fifty-one minutes, and the rest of the movie is a very stretched, convoluted and ungainly effort to weave some twists and action into the plot, which ultimately makes for a crudely dramatised and terrifically tedious confrontation.

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It contains numerous holes and many scenes that appear very manufactured and coarse. It’s one of those movies were events occur and are set up in ways that make you question the integrity of the plot — it doesn’t have any fluency or sense to it. It is extremely rushed and hesitant with details, and appears more concerned with getting to the end rather than telling a coherent and developed tale.

For example, how serious is Light about cleansing the world of criminals? We don’t really know. Such little time is spent establishing the motivation and clout of Kira himself, and we barely even see Light write in the Death Note. Further to this, how can the law enforcement even reliably keep track of Kira’s victims when the vast majority appear as accidental deaths? How does Kira gain a following and become an entity unto himself? In the original, Kira’s victims are identifiable by their shared fate (sudden heart attack), which is not the case here. It’s as though the writers just expect you to follow along, without adding a sense of comprehension to the plot. It’s all very vague.

It’s difficult to take the movie seriously when it lacks so many components, no only from a filmmaking and storytelling perspective, but also as an adaptation. Events that were so astounding, atmospheric and dramatic in the original work are all too often glossed over or missed entirely here. There were so many opportunities, and the story was already written, it need only be condensed. How such an absorbing and well-plotted thriller was molded into something so tedious and inadequate is beyond me. What’s even more insulting is the ending, which is a major cop out and seems to lead into a sequel. If two movies were planned, there is just no excuse for how rushed, yet barren this movie is.

So, is there anything that actually works in this film? Well, it’s competently shot. The cinematography is not bad, and some shots were quite alluring and stylish. The score was rather unexceptional, but it is passable, although the music played during the climax came across to me as rather cheesy. That’s about it, though. Even as a stand alone movie for someone unfamiliar with Death Note, it’s lusterless. The original work was so groundbreaking and captivating — it’s a travesty this adaptation exists. I usually think, well at least bad movies can make fun drinking games with some friendly company, but this is just insulting. I think The Last Airbender might actually be more watchable.