As we said in our review, Netflix’s live-action version of Death Note is caught in its uncertainty; does it want to be an adaptation or its own thing?
At San Diego Comic-Con, director Adam Wingard said that he viewed Death Note as something that “had a great premise” adding that he could “breathe new life into it.” Wingard said there were “a lot of cool themes about good and evil” that he could take on and spin into something new. Going in, Wingard said he knew that Death Note adaptations have been unsuccessful.
“There hasn’t been a lot of good ones,” Wingard said. “Death Note is something that has been adapted before and for us that felt like a good opportunity to take something that was adapted faithfully in the past and put our own spin on it.”
Actor Willem Dafoe, who voices Ryuk, agrees. Dafoe told Polygon that he doesn’t believe there’s a correct or incorrect formula to approaching an adaptation. What works for one movie and one director doesn’t necessarily work for another. Death Note, Dafoe added, was a result of Wingard’s vision for the story.
“I feel most comfortable when people work from a place of heart, so if they make something that isn’t just a straight version of the original, and they take some leaps and liberties, I think it’s necessary,” Dafoe said. “You take the soul of the source material and then you make something with that soul but it doesn’t have to be a replica. It can be something completely different.”
Wingard addressed these changes during his panel at San Diego Comic-Con. The original Death Note manga was a mysterious thriller that found its hook in the game of cat-and-mouse played by vigilante teenager Light Turner and the kooky detective, L. Although there were elements of horror thrown into the story, Death Note didn’t venture too far from its thriller base. That’s not the case in Wingard’s adaptation.
“It wasn’t pinned down by one genre and it encapsulates a lot of genres,” Wingard said. “It’s mostly a thriller, but it has comedy, romance and there’s even a musical mashup … kind of. I’ve treaded the line of trying to play with genre tropes so that’s where my interest comes from.”
Although Wingard’s vision for the movie has already suffered some backlash, people are unanimously in favor of Dafoe’s performance of the death god, Ryuk — even the little they’ve seen so far in trailers. Dafoe admitted he doesn’t pay attention to conversation about his movies online, choosing to ignore the chatter, but said it felt good to know people responded well to his portrayal.
“You always want people to respond in a positive way and particularly when it’s such a beautiful source material that has a large group of pre-existing fans,” Dafoe said. “This is a version of a much loved source material. We wanted to have people not be disappointed. And while this is Adam’s take on this material, I think the Ryuk is very faithful and not so very different from other versions.”
Ryuk is one of the movie’s only interesting characters, but he’s also one of the scariest. When Wingard’s name became attached to the project, many people assumed the movie would be a straight horror flick because of his past projects. Wingard has made a name for himself within the horror world, and his influence can be seen in Dafoe’s portrayal of Ryuk.
“We really took the Ryuk scenes and gave them a horror tinge,” Wingard said. “He’s always in the shadows.”
Since Dafoe doesn’t spend much time looking up every murmur he hears about his projects, he was unaware of the backlash Death Note was facing, but he wasn’t surprised. Dafoe said anytime someone attempts to put their own spin on a beloved project, there is a vocal group of people who take issue with it. The key to not letting that get him down, Dafoe said, is knowing that he did a good job and being proud of what he created.
“It’s like any time you take a song and you do a new version of it, you know you honor the spirt of the original and you’re always making it in your terms,” he said. “I think art deserves all kinds of spins. Especially a movie like Death Note, which can be done in many ways.”
Death Note will be available to stream on Aug. 25 on Netflix.