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How To Fix Netflix’s Death Note

Hollywood’s latest attempts to adapt beloved manga and anime were disappointments. Ghost in the Shell faithfully replicated the cyberpunk film’s visuals, but not the story. Netflix’s take on Death Note was its own bag of screaming cats. It had some good parts, like Willem Dafoe’s performance, and was ambitious in its presentation, But, ultimately, the film drifts a little too far from the source material. Perhaps some rethinking should have been applied to the film before it was released on Netflix. This article is my own collection of ideas on how I would have handled Death Note for Netflix, because I can dream, damnit.

Adam Wingard worked hard to try to make this film mean something, but also had to please the fans, and tell a new story. Death Note is about Light Yagami, a Japanese teenager who comes across the Death Note, a book which will kill the person whose name is written in it. Light soon uses its power to start killing criminals across the world, adopting the godly alias of “Kira” to bring about his own brand of justice. Opposing him is the bizarre but genius detective named L and a group of cops led by Light’s father. The core focus of the series is the exciting cat-and-mouse game between Light and L, and the themes of morality and concept of justice.

The Netflix film maintained these themes, but the game of wits quickly falls apart and is abandoned, replaced by a cautionary tale of romance and temptation. The characters are a lot more emotional, hysterical, and prone to making stupid choices. Light, a calm, manipulative genius with a god complex in the anime, becomes more of a nervous kid, prone to panicking and even second guessing himself. L remains mostly similar, but becomes increasingly irrational and emotional in his actions. I believe these changes were incorporated to help audiences relate to the characters on a more empathic level. In the anime, Light is purely egotistical and sociopathic, with little redeeming qualities as a person; while L’s strange behaviour could easily put some viewers off.

The movie tries to humanise Light a little more and give him legitimate, personal reasons to start killing criminals. When bullied for protecting his future girlfriend Mia, Light is reprimanded for that and doing the homework for other students. We then learn his mother was murdered and the culprit walked away. This is the trigger point when Ryuk, the Shinigami owner of the Death Note, offers him the chance to get his own justice. The changes in Light’s motives also change his role as Kira. In Japan, Kira was viewed as a criminal by the police, based on the country’s severe attitude towards outlaws. While in the Netflix film, he personifies America’s need to police the world and be its protector. In a montage, criminals implied to be related to North Korea and ISIS are shown amongst the victims, both of which are major threats to the United States.

These changes, however, were not well received by the fanbase. With Light making dumb decisions, and L acting like a stroppy child who uses guns and performs parkour, most dismissed the film as a shoddy adaptation. The film’s short runtime forces the story to dump a lot of the manga’s interesting elements, and the pacing is often pushed. The cat-and-mouse game is abandoned early on and doesn’t really go anywhere, forcing characters to make assumptions or meet under coincidence.

So, if this Netflix film had been in my hands, I would’ve done things quite differently. For one, it would have worked better as a television series, or just a miniseries if necessary. There is way too much involved in Death Note which makes it a great thriller, and chucking half of it out of a 100-minute film was not a good move. Sure, telling a new version of a familiar story was a good idea on Wingard’s part, but ditching the most renowned framework of the whole shebang was not. With a miniseries, you would have more time to flesh out the characters, discuss the themes, and explore what would a person do if they had the ability to take life with the stroke of a pen.

Now, here is the biggest change I would have made. If the characters had not been presented as Light Yagami and the same L as seen in the manga and anime, perhaps the reaction to the film would’ve been different. My suggestion would be to not do a direct adaptation of Death Note, but instead, make this Netflix miniseries a direct or spiritual sequel. In this version, Kira’s justice occurred years ago. Now crime is back up and worse than ever, and there’s no sign of Kira’s “second coming”. Some still worship him, while the authorities regard him as a criminal. The character who is Light Turner could easily have the same arc, or just change his name, and bam, you now have a completely different person unrelated with Light Yagami beyond wishing to become the next Kira out of necessity.

L could also be a different character, specifically he (or she) could be a successor to the original L. This could also explain why L is a bit more neurotic and prone to hysterics. He isn’t the original. He so desperately wishes to live up to the reputation of his predecessor, but has a habit of making rash decisions, a problem he is trying to overcome. Watari, the minder and father figure of L in both versions, could be swapped out for someone else in the same role.

One of my problems with the original is that the story was entirely focused on the game between Light and L and those related to that. Though it was awesome. We never really got the chance to view the larger world. How were the actions of Kira affecting normal citizens morally and religiously? How did the general public respond to mass murder? We glimpsed this occasionally, and it is worth exploring.

The Netflix film actually did challenge the themes of Death Note. Light Yagami has no real sense of morality, and while claiming his actions are for the greater good, the power of the Death Note only brought out his true sociopathic, powerhungry nature. Light Turner, however, was more bound by morals. He refused to take the lives of anyone who didn’t deserve it. In one scene, Light and his girlfriend Mia examine a website where people can list the names of people they think deserve to die. While Mia is eager to just start taking names, Light suggests that half of the posted names could be innocent and listed out of spite or amusement.

This could open up all sorts of questions about Light’s justice, like what if numerous victims turned out to be innocent? What happens if a person kills out of self-defence or by accident – would they be named in the Death Note? Could Kira be identified, arrested, and jailed? Would he be enemy number one of inside prison, or treated like some sort of saviour? See, the possibilities are endless for Death Note.

The Death Note itself has numerous rules which were used to restrict Light’s actions in the manga, while the Netflix film was a little looser with them. Most of these rules exist to make sure the lore of the series remain firm and strong. For instance, the victims of the book will die regardless and nothing can prevent their deaths from occurring. The film incorporated a new role saying this was possible to avert if the page with a victim’s name was burnt. Perhaps the most interesting rule is that up to six Death Notes can exist on Earth at a time. Imagine the mayhem that could involve. Well, actually, the Japanese film series did just that.

In Death Note: Light Up the World, six Death Notes are dropped on Earth, each owner using it for a different purpose. There is the expected wannabe successor of Kira, but also a psychopath who kills people on a whim; a doctor who helps terminally ill patients; a Wall Street mogul who kills his opponents and rivals in business; a conservative lawman who murders Kira supporters; and a man who refuses to use the Death Note and instead prove that the law is a better choice to follow. I would incorporate this plot over for my reimagined take on Netflix’s series. The new protagonist finds themselves crossing paths with others using Death Notes for various reasons, and seeing their own impact upon society and the world.

The movie actually ended on an open end, with Light’s identity as Kira being discovered by his father, and L understands the power of the Death Note, faced with the temptation to write Light’s name down. Whether or not it continues remains to be seen. The backlash alone might’ve canned any possible plans for a sequel. But, I suppose even the ending has some cleverness to it, leaving the audience theorise whether or not L will end Light’s life, and what will become of Kira.

So, there you have it. Not exactly concrete ideas, but there are a few to consider and spread around. Death Note remains one of the most popular manga of all-time, and is held in high regard. While the Netflix movie was met with mixed opinions, I believe there is room for improvement or change, in order for it to gain its own identity.

How do you think Netflix’s Death Note movie could have been handled differently? Is there room for improvement, or should the movie be on Light’s death list? Leave a comment below or on our Twitter feed.

About the author

Mark Russell