One of the most common criticisms of Netflix's Death Note movie is that it tries to cram too much into a fairly short running time. According to director Adam Wingard and producer Masi Oka, however, the intention wasn't to adapt the original manga as much as tell the story of Light before he gets to the place the manga shows him in.
Margaret Qualley, Nat Wolff and Adam Wingard on the set of Death Note. Image: James Dittiger/Netflix
"To me, it was always about sort of the origin story, and that even though we were just very loosely basing it off the original source material, that, you know, [it] was just about the beginning of it," Wingard told me.
Netflix's Death Note follows Light (Nat Wolff), a disaffected high school student, as he finds the Death Note, a book that kills anyone the bearer writes the name of in it, so long as they picture the face of the person. At the urging of Ryuk (voiced by Willem Dafoe) and Mia (Margaret Qualley) — a sort of manic pixie dreamgirl who is also very into murder — Light starts killing "bad" people and gains fame as a vigilante named Kira. He's pursued by a task force in his home city of Seattle, led by his father (Shea Whigham) — and then a wunderkind investigator called L (Lakeith Stanfield) shows up to aid in the hunt. The climax is, of course, during homecoming. Because this is a coming-of-age-through-killing story, after all, and every high school movie needs some dance-related drama.
"We wanted to make this as an original story that kind of ends where the manga starts," said Oka. "Light in the film ends where Light in the manga kind of begins."
One of the keys to doing that was shaping the character of Mia, who is very different from the Misa character from the manga. "One of the most interesting things about our film was that this isn't a movie about giving the Death Note to Light. It's really about giving the Death Note to Light and Mia, which really creates and give birth to this kind of phenomenon," explained Wingard. In the original story, Misa seeks out Light/Kira because he punished the man who killed her parents. She's very devoted to him and trades some of her life for certain supernatural attributes. None of that is in the character in the movie.
"She is a very mysterious character in the sense that we don't know too much about her background. But I did think there was something interesting about the coupling of [the two characters] being the foundation of the movie. This is in some ways is about high school kids in their first relationship," explained Wingard.
The creation of Mia also meant they could step back with Light. "You know, the idea is almost like, Mia, in some ways, is as more like the original version of Light, personality-wise," said Wingard. "You know, she's a bit more sociopathic in that same kind of way."
Mia being very different from Misa means she wouldn't appear in a sequel going through any of the things Misa does, which was my expectation going into the movie. "That's always our intent, to blow people's expectations out of the water and do things that people don't expect," said Oka of the changes.
One other big change is to L, who now has a background as someone raised in a sort of super soldier project. That's why his intellect and abilities are so outside the realm of regular people — and why he's so weird. That new background, said Wingard, could definitely be part of a sequel.
"I think the exciting thing would be to check in with Light a few years later and see where he is, and also be able to see where L has kind of eluded his background, his programming. I think that's where the other detectives and stuff would come into play," he said. "Light in this version is much more kind of naive and altruistic, I think. And so, if this is his origin story, it's interesting to kind of see how he would be a dark person as it goes. Because in the sequel, he wouldn't have that father figure. His dad — even though it doesn't seem like he's going to turn him in, [it] definitely seems like that they would be estranged from each other at this point."
At the end of the day, Wingard says to watch the movie more than once. There is a lot hidden behind the obvious. "Some things might seem kind of looser or excessively mysterious in the first viewing, but I think there's clues and answers in it, too. But the thing is that they're very much of this film. It's not like, you know, go back and look at other Death Note stuff and figure it out."
Death Note is now available on Netflix.