Last week I reviewed the Netflix Death Note movie and I tried really hard to review it as a movie in its own right rather than as a poorer version of the psychological masterpiece that is the original anime (at least the first half of it). However, while I read a lot of reviews about this movie, what I noticed repeatedly was that a lot of reviewers were not reviewing the movie on the screen. They were reviewing how well it managed to follow a different script or the manga. Some reviewers even put side by side pictures of the live action characters from the American production with the anime version of the character as though this somehow added weight to their argument that the movie was appalling.
Now, I don’t actually want to argue about whether the movie was good or not because that isn’t even the issue. While I enjoyed it on my second watch through, there are some actual plot and character problems that the movie has, even ignoring the source material and the changes that were made, and it definitely has some pacing issues in the second half. Is it the single worst thing I’ve ever seen and would I threaten the production team with having their names written in a Death Note? Probably not, but nor do I care to try to defend the movie because this movie is pretty much doomed to be a five minute discussion topic and then the world will move on.
However, I have to wonder why fans get so attached to the source material that any variation feels like some kind of criminal act? By its very nature, adapting material forces changes. From manga to anime, anime to live action, it is kind of certain some things are going to be lost or changed. Some because of the medium involved and others because of different interpretations, and still others by deliberate choice. While those choices may produce a lesser quality work (and regularly do, I’m not even going to try to claim that the majority of works that have ended up with this treatment aren’t pretty dreadful) it isn’t necessarily because they chose to change them. In the case of Death Note, I would actually argue that the changes didn’t go far enough.
In an effort to pander to the fans of the manga and anime, several characters and events were left in the film, though they served little purpose and actually just took up screen time that could have better been spent on fleshing out some of the more original ideas. The pacing fell apart toward the end because we’d wasted time building L up as any kind of antagonist when he actually wasn’t the one Light had to confront, and because they bothered to leave Light’s father in the story as a character of any significance. Which of course in the other variations of the story, L and Light’s father are important and of course should have screen time, but in this version of the story, they were merely the face of the police, but the climax isn’t about Light facing off against the police. It is about Light facing off with Mia, his partner who for whatever reason wants to use the Death Note to judge whoever she wants.
If you sat through Netflix’s Death Note and felt frustrated by the ending, think about how much better it would be if L just remained a background character. A voice on the TV reassuring people that the police were looking for Kira, and someone Light mocked to make himself look good to Mia, and then they went about their business. What if the police received a tip that Light and Mia might have been Kira after they were overheard discussing the Death Note in the school grounds (because they do and that is stupid), so the police still show up at the dance forcing Light to tell Mia to go to the ferris wheel and still leading to a chase sequence, only no L and no space gun.
Suddenly the whole sequence is cleaner and less complex because you aren’t trying to deal with L’s emotional break down which is unimportant to the viewer because this version of Death Note gave us no reason to care and you aren’t trying to figure out what is with the gun. Light no longer has to try to justify his actions in hysterics and we actually have time to give Mia some actual character development. It would all work so well.
However, let’s pitch that idea to Death Note fans.
So, I’m going to make a live action version of Death Note.
It’s going to be set in America.
No, it will be fine. We’ll just give Light an American sounding surname. No problem.
Assuming that’s true, what else will you change?
Okay, I’m going to get rid of L as a main character. He’ll still be there, but the investigation isn’t going to get that close to Light, as I’m going to focus on how Light changes as a character because of the Death Note rather than how smart he is and how well he can play cat and mouse with a detective.
Right, so the table just got flipped and that discussion ended rather abruptly. Because for some people that change means it is no longer Death Note. What it means to be Death Note is gone. For me though, Death Note is the power to kill with the book. How that power is handled by different people in different times and places could be fascinating. There’s an endless parade of stories that could come from that idea and some of them could be brilliant. They may not involve two super geniuses anonymously facing off using the entire world as their battle ground, but the stories could still be pretty brilliant. So that is where I feel that saying the reason the Netflix Death Note movie is not that good isn’t because they changed the source, but because they didn’t have enough confidence to take the core mechanic and make it their own. They tried to have their cake and eat it, by appealing to fans by keeping things they should have just cut and trying to make a very different style story at the same time.
But if we turn our attention to the other big adaptation that got people talking, Ghost in the Shell, we have much the same argument. Some people accusing Hollywood of White Washing, others saying that the writers missed the point, still others saying Scarlett was not a good Major whereas some would say she did a fine Major. But maybe it is the fans missing the point.
I don’t know how many of you have ever read the novel ‘Jaws’. I’m sure most of you have either seen the movie or know of it. It’s a great movie. Lot’s of suspense and jump scares, excellent musical score, some buddy moments with the cast, and of course a giant shark eating people. It’s classic and it works. But the movie wasn’t supposed to be that suspenseful. The shark was supposed to appear a lot more and the reason we only get limited glimpses of it, adding to that great atmosphere, is because the shark malfunctioned and they couldn’t get any more footage of it. The drunken singing and storytelling occurred because one of the cast was genuinely drunk (regularly). Many things that make that movie amazing occurred entirely by accident.
And when you read the novel, aka the source material, what you find is an incredibly different story and one that the movie was clearly never trying to tell. Yes, there’s still a killer shark. But there’s also a love triangle between Brody and the scientist and Brody’s wife and the book spends a lot of time on the drama and relationship aspects and far less time with the boys drinking on the boat. It is almost as if the only thing kept the same were some of the character names and the killer shark. I’ll also point out that the movie is much more entertaining than the book, though doesn’t have the depth of characterisation you will find in the book.
But comparing the two is kind of pointless. The book has its place and its audience and it inspired one of the greatest classic horror stories to hit the cinema. The fact that the two stories have ended up vastly differently doesn’t mean that the movie is trash or that the writer should somehow be fed to the broken mechanical shark.
To bring this back to anime though, I think Sailor Moon (1990’s) and Sailor Moon Crystal are a great example of why following the source isn’t the be all and end all. I loved the original Sailor Moon anime. Yeah, it isn’t following the manga but as I didn’t even know it was based on a manga when I was young that isn’t really a criticism I care for. It was a great story and one I fell in love with. That didn’t mean I wasn’t excited about Crystal. Seeing the story in a new form. Same characters but with a different interpretation. One that was apparently closer to the source but different from the one I knew. The end result is that while the main characters did great out of Crystal, the Sailor Scouts really get sidelined a lot and their personalities are pretty bland. So, sure, fans of the manga may really appreciate Crystal for how true it might be, but for me, while it is great to see Sailor Moon with more modern visuals and less filler, the 1990’s version is always going to be my go to version for the champion of Love and Justice.
I’m going to reiterate that the point of this post wasn’t to tell you that Death Note was an amazing movie. Nor was it to criticise people who want to criticise the movie. It was more a musing on how our preconceived notions of what something should be like affect our ability to accept variations on it. Which makes me wonder why we have so many reimaginings of super heroes and why we’re tolerant of those guys getting darker and grittier with every retelling but aren’t happy to see a character made more human or actually get a girlfriend.
Anyway, over to you and I’m sure I’m asking for it but let me know your thoughts on how fans deal with adaptations of source material.
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