Everybody's Mad At Netflix
If you have to ask "Why, what did Netflix do this time?" Consider yourself blessed, because the Internet storm that ensued in the wake of Netflix's adaptation of the classic manga series Death Note was deafening. Some protests were over the white-washing of the series, where this award-winning, best-selling manga written by Japanese artists Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata, filled with Japanese characters and set in Japan, was re-set in America and re-cast with white people.
Yes, that's an issue too. But the casting was just one gripe among many, the main one being that it was apparently made by people who - there is no nice way to put it - were just too stupid to understand anything about the series.
Behold the below review, and you'll appreciate how much I held back anyway:
The fundamental flaw with Netflix's adaptation is squarely pinned to the script. There is no logic to it at all. They ripped out everything in the manga and anime series they could get their hands on until the plot is so gutted you could have re-sketched it asMary Poppins and called it a day, then they re-tooled it and crammed in twice as much as they took out.
No matter how anybody tries to explain the changes, they don't add up. If you watched the above video, here's just some of what they added:
- L's rationale for eating candy. As the video points out, it's not even needed. Detectives with a trademark vice are a staple of fiction, going back to Sherlock Holmes.
- Mia - the whole character. Maybe a combined replacement for Misa and Light's early-on default girlfriend, but bears no resemblance to anybody in the original.
- Ryuk's investment in the outcome. Originally Ryuk is a netherworld spirit who's completely dispassionate to what Light does. He's here to watch the fun, point blank.
- The Ferris wheel. That's right, there's no amusement park scene at all in the original.
- The Watari subplot. Light never directly interacts with Watari in the original.
- The police car chase.
- L breaking into Light's apartment.
- Light being in a coma.
That's like 1% of the stuff they invented and crammed in. Most mind-numbing of all, the Netflix DN sticks in all these random plot elements, new rules for how things work, new character quirks, completely flipped polarities, and then subverts them.
As pointed out in the review, they make up their own rules to stomp on them. And I'm sorry, but mere incompetence doesn't explain this. What this sounds like is that somebody in the production chain got stuck with a job they didn't want and took it out on the source material. Sabotaged on purpose.
Now, we all know Netflix's adaptations of literature don't have the greatest track record. And we also know that attempts to translate Japanese manga into American cinema generally turn out dumb as cheese. But on top of that, this is only the latest in a series of stunted attempts to adapt Death Note, and I'm here to tell you we probably got as close to a good version as we'll ever get.
A Brief History Of Death Note Adaptations
Well, let's not dwell on them too long…
- The original anime (Japanese, 2006-07) - considered the best and most faithful adaptation.
- The first two live-action movies (Japanese 2006) - hit and miss
- The live-action TV series (2015) - tepid
- The Netflix movie (2017) - poison
That's not counting the light novel sequels and prequels, the works adapting those, and a stage musical for cryin' out loud. Death Note is just that popular!
We have a nice big elephant in the room, so let's lead it out gently with this reviewer defending the INFAMOUS potato-chip scene.
Now a lot of why that scene is considered cheesy is because of the American dubbing. There are several spots where the American voice-acting strains a few chords. But that's to be expected; watch enough English-dubbed anime, and you'll see there's only so high a quality standard we can expect - even treasured classics like Spirited Away stumble on this point sometimes.
If anything, the Netflix Death Note vindicates the potato chip scene. That's one scene built up for light (sorry) relief, as the reviewer tells it. As opposed to Netflix, who sprayed silly string all over the whole movie.
For another analysis of the anime, this time showing it at its best, here's a fascinating deconstruction of another scene from the series:
OK, so the anime got it to spot on as much as possible. It follows the manga faithfully, practically page for page. As for the first few live action movies… they don't do as well, but they're still at least serious attempts.
But the point of all this is to show why Death Note is pretty impossible to adapt…
Death Note Is Its Own Genre!
Have some fun sometimes and charge into a manga forum asking "What other series out there is like Death Note?" You'll get a few shrugs, and usually, the Naoki Urasawa 1994-2001 manga Monster comes up as the closest mark, but only because it's also a detective story.
Death Note breaks out of the mold of manga in the first place. Standard manga fare runs more to Bleach, Fullmetal Alchemist, Cowboy Bebop, and - forgive the mention - Sailor Moon. Lots of action, a hero out to save the world, big swords, big guns, funny Genki girls, simple moral tales. This is NOT to dismiss other manga as lesser works, mind, but the majority of it is Shonen-Shoujo, aimed at kids. Contrast Death Note, which is best described as a supernatural noir police thriller. Perhaps Sam Spade could have taken down Light, but only on his sharpest day.
Death Note is not only unusually deep for a manga, it tells a story at least as deep and certainly among the most complex of any story ever told. It's not just concerned with showing a battle between good and evil, it's asking what is good and evil? I wouldn't go so far as to compare it to Shakespeare - so I'll link to somebody else doing that instead. Yeah, that's serious. Here's another rumination on the depth of this beast:
...we had to dig into ancient Greek literature and Plato there. Try connecting Sailor Moon to Plato.
Light Yagami is a brilliant stand-in villain protagonist. Even if the audience never agrees with him, they can see where he's coming from at first. It's only when his megalomania and actual god complex (how many stories even have an applicable god complex?) starts to come out that they're jolted to realize they've been dragged down a slippery slope by Light's previous FOX-News rationality.
Then they're intent on L and the police's mission to drag Kira out in the open. But even they sometimes falter and question themselves. At least a few times, the task force (especially when it's Matsuda's turn to talk) questions whether they're justified in stopping Kira. They debate how their investigation violates common civil rights such as privacy, how they've been driven outside normal police procedures, and whether the lesser ranks have every right to just drop their badges on the desk and quit to spare their precious necks.
The story even addresses the dual interpretations of right and wrong in-universe, when they point out how nobody expresses support for Kira in public, but he's an underground celebrity on the anonymous Internet. Here again, an innovation we've seen in few stories before: We've barely had the Internet long enough to begin asking how it impacts human society, but Death Note raised the question when Google itself was only five years old.
Something Will Always Be Lost In Translation
There are several literary works which defy video adaptation. Usually, if a writer's strengths lie primarily in their narrative style, then the film is going to suffer. Stephen King writes best-selling horror novels laced with flowing stream-of-consciousness that often turn out to be limp movies, except for when an even greater auteur like Stanley Kubrick takes the wheel.
Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide To The Universe will always see near-misses in adaptation, thanks to Adams' habit of giving the narrator the best jokes. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. has a disarmingly simple prose style which hides mature and grandiose themes, so film adaptations of his work deflate on impact with the screen.
With Death Note, you simply have a story that is too jam-packed with words, words, WORDS. The anime had the time to unpack that whole saga with all its subtle flavors - and as noted in one of the videos we embed here, even at that the beats are rushed. It's simply too taxing to ask a viewer to sit through all those ruminations about plots within plots and contingency plans on contingency plans in real time.
You know all those scenes with Light going off in his head for a few pages of analysis before he answers a question? Notice how nobody kicks his shin in mid-thought-bubble and yells "Dammit man, I'm talking to you! Answer me!"
Deep and good. But not realistic.