I believe in the power and process of adaptation. It can be a clarifying process that reveals the unique qualities of two mediums. How can a different medium represent similar themes? In that process, a remix can also occur where old stories meet with new ideas. Netflix’s adaptation/nominal remake of the Japanese manga, anime, and film series known as Death Note is similarly clarifying, but for none of the positive reasons imagined. Death Note is what happens when there is a failure to adapt. The Adam Wingard directed film plays with the iconography of the series, but fails to make a case for itself as a film. It neither fully commits to thematic repetition or remix. Stuck in the middle it becomes this ersatz Death Note that is just a waste.
The film’s opening moments are its best; there is the promise of possibility. At first glance, there is the hint of an interesting twist on its protagonist, Light. In the original series, Light Yagami is a privileged wunderkind, but feels unloved and lacking recognition. Enter the Death Note and suddenly he has an outlet for his narcissistic delusions of grandeur. The Wingard directed Death Note goes in a similar but different direction for its version of Light played by Nat Wolff. From the first shot of Nat Wolff, the film casts him as a grungy outsider monotonously filling out someone else’s homework for money, as he gazes longingly at preppy bored cheerleader Mia (Margaret Qualley).
These opening minutes make the Seattle setting feel fitting. Until he talks, and it’s all downhill from there; hackneyed dialog at nearly every step of the game cuts the film off at its knees. Through Nat Wolff’s performance and poor writing, this version of Light comes off like the embodiment of that “I studied the Blade” meme. A whiny, feckless, angry individual whose minor decent qualities are lost once he goes on his symbolic phallus wagging killing spree. The film and actor are unable to deliver any depth to the character, he becomes a cartoon vision of imagined 90s school shooters mixed with our conception of how people end up in the cesspool of the internet alt right.
This new take on the character cannot and should not shut down the conversation around the films white washing, and it goes without saying that if they’d used an Asian American actor that would have added innumerable subtexts (which this film lacks) even with the sloppy process the film goes through. But they didn’t go with an Asian American actor, and instead of arguing against text with a hypothetical I’m left to try and read what they did. Which isn’t much. Death Note is bad, but worse, it’s boring. They could’ve at least made something interesting. That thematic center would only have been developed if the film bothered to situate itself within an actual American context. Instead of the faux-America, listless and dissatisfied, the film shows through windows and screens. The film feels cut off from the world of the film. Disconnected, everything in this movie is white washed over to allow the film to go on a numbing, mile-a-minute 100-minute runtime as quickly as possible. There is no time for anything thoughtful to occur.
That’s actually what this film lacks: thought. In adapting Shakespeare, first with Throne of Blood and later with Ran, director Akira Kurosawa and his collaborators were studious and thoughtful with how they adapted Shakespeare into a Japanese context. Kurosawa was influenced by the principles of Noh theater for his costume design, performance, and staging in Throne of Blood. Martin Scorsese and writer William Monahan took the tense and explosive cat and mouse game of Infernal Affairs and placed it specifically in the context of Boston and America’s crime film genre. Transnational adaptation and will continue to occur and can be done well; artists just have to stop and think for longer than 5 seconds about how this new piece will exist in a new context.
Director Adam Wingard, writers Charles Parlapanides, Vlas Parlapanides, and Jeremy Slater, and various producers didn’t seem to stop and think about how to translate this Japanese text into an American context. Instead, they strip-mined the source for basic character names, plot, and iconography. There is no consideration to how it would exist in this new context or how to use it to comment on that context. There is a specificity in Kurosawa and Scorsese that this film abundantly lacks. Maybe they could’ve used the film to explore American imperialism, love for white saviors, the general racial politics of America (Keith Stanfield as L is left totally unremarked upon), or are apparent disaffection with traditional authority figures. Unable to place itself in a specific context, Death Note is thoughtless, racially insensitive play acting.Continued below
The tone-dead quality of the film exposes its dark representational politics. From a ham-fisted montage-conversation between Light and Mia about their plans to save people by creating “Kira,” copiously shot with anonymous multicultural crowd shots. They aren’t “sheep,” but they certainly need a savior. To our only real look at a Kira crime scene which involves gawking at eroticized, bloodied, Japanese bodies. To the overall gender dynamics between Light and Mia in general; Light is figured as a whimp and Mia is a pale imitation of the titular Heathers. It offers up these moments without a hint of introspection or awareness.
At the same time, Death Note is a fundamentally broken product in terms of craft. The overall bloom of poor craftsmanship stems from the films inability to figure out what kind of movie it wants to be. Is this a horror movie? Those have rules and for some reason, the film adds hundreds of rules to the Death Note, but never bothers to meaningfully explain them. Instead, it uses them as get out of jail free cards for whatever drama-less moment it finds itself in. Is it a cat and mouse thriller between Light and L? No, neither character is developed enough for that sort of rivalry to feel meaningful. Their one meeting is the sugar rushed version of the café scene from Heat. Is this a black comedy or satire supposedly mocking Light Turner and his inability to see past his own perceived inadequacies?
At various moments Death Note attempts all of these tones. None of these tonalities last long enough to bring the semblance of coherence. Audiences are left with whiplash as the film goes from a Heathers-esque moment, to a supposedly dark and serious reveal before something else. In films like You’re Next and The Guest director, Adam Wingard showed a surprising amount of control in handling the vacillating tones of these horror movies. None of that control (or basic storytelling) is evident leaving the film emotionally and intellectually dead in the water.
Films like Death Note and the recent Ghost in the Shell are examples of the failure to adapt. How the thoughtless repetition of imagery and belief in the inherent value of that imagery can reveal outmoded presumptions and the lack of vision perpetuating them. Disappointing most of all are how much of a missed opportunity it is. Death Note could have been used to say something, and it doesn’t say anything.