Did you get a chance to check out the newly released trailer for Adam Wingard‘s Netflix movie, Death Note? If not, do yourself a favor and scope it out here before reading on. Now that you’re back, we’re going to talk a bit about the difference between the original manga from writer Tsugumi Ohba and illustrator Takeshi Obata, and Wingard’s live-action adaptation. It’s worth mentioning that Death Note has been adapted into an anime series and four live-action Japanese feature productions, but this discussion will focus on the version coming to Netflix this August 25th.
IGN chatted with Wingard about his film and which aspects of it deviate from the source material. The most obvious change has been the casting and character changes, such as Nat Wolff starring as Light Turner instead of a Japanese actor playing Light Yagami. Then there’s the shift in setting, moving the story from Japan to Seattle, Washington. These changes come the expected controversy, but from a filmmaking perspective, they also impact the storytelling. Wingard got into specifics regarding his reasoning behind said changes.
And it looks like the decisions to skew from the source material came early on in the adaptation process:
It’s one of those things where the harder I tried to stay 100 percent true to the source material, the more it just kind of fell apart… You’re in a different country, you’re in a different kind of environment, and you’re trying to also summarize a sprawling series into a two-hour-long film. For me, it became about what do these themes mean to modern day America, and how does that affect how we tell the story. Ultimately, the cat and mouse chase between Light and L, the themes of good, evil, and what’s in between the gray area. Those are the core things of Death Note, and that’s really what we went for.
I, for one, am very happy to hear that the tense game of cat-and-mouse will still be present in the film because hat hasn’t really come through in the marketing material. But as for the setting change, Wingard says:
In the early stages of the film I was rereading all of the manga, really just looking at, ‘How does any of this translate to the United States?’ … Ultimately, whenever I say it’s about America, I’m looking at it like, ‘What are the main kind of core issues going on in America?’ What are the things that people chalk up to conspiracy theories? What kind of weird underground programs does the government have? How do I those work into the world of Death Note?
The themes of Death Note–death, one human’s unnatural control over it, and the pressure those life-ending decisions exert–feel pretty universal, though demonic forces like Ryuk definitely feel relatively more foreign to American audiences. And yet Ryuk seems to be the sole character who anchors both the manga and the new movie. But with a shift in setting comes a change in character as well, according to Wingard:
At its core, it’s taking the themes of who the characters are but it’s exploring them in a new context. Ultimately the personalities of the characters a quite a bit different… L isn’t the same. There are a lot of similarities — he likes candy, sometimes he romps around with his shoes off. Those kinds of things, but at the end of the day the take on L and the escalation of his character is very different. He’s still a weirdo. It’s the same for almost all the characters across the board. Probably the only character that comes off as the same way as he does in the anime is Ryuk.
Fans of Wingard’s film The Guest may see some similarities with how L’s character is developed in the context of the story:
One of the most exciting things for me is to take L’s backstory and flesh that out in the context of underground, clandestine American operations, programs, and things of that nature.
Fans of the source material will likely have a lot more to say about Death Note once it hits Netflix his August, but in the meantime, feel free to share your thoughts in the comment!