Then again, it isn’t altogether accurate to call the Hunger Games “the next Twilight,” nor was it really correct to call Twilight “the next Harry Potter” when it was first doing press at Comic Con. Accurate? No. Helpful? Most often. Such elevator pitching really is the easiest way to present franchises when they’ve yet to establish identities of their own in the pop consciousness. As I recall, Variety once described Star Wars as “James Bond meets 2001” several months before its release, so there you go.
Yes, there is a world a difference between Dragon Tattoo and Death Note, but they’re still foreign, thoroughly-modern mysteries that have enjoyed phenomenal worldwide success in print that’s subsequently expanded into multimedia in every country except America (until recently, anyway.) David Fincher unveiled his interpretation of Stieg Larsson’s novels a few weeks back and Shane Black insists he’ll bring his take on Tsugumi Ohba and Takeshi Obata’s comic to screen after he wraps the third Iron Man. Given how IM3’s blockbuster is seemingly a given, there’s a good chance he’ll be able to.
Thus, this may very well prove to be a years-in-advance primer for regular cinephiles who aren’t likely to read a manga, view an anime or watch any J-horror.
Death Note follows a Japanese valedictorian, Light Yagami (a dead ringer for Zac Efron,) who receives all the powers of death after a bored demon, Ryuk, drops a magic notebook into his life with the idle hope that what ensues will alleviate the boredom of his immortality. Write anybody’s name into this “death note” and they’ll die from a heart attack within a minute (unless you choose to specify the time and manner of their death.) Such nigh-omnipotent power doesn’t take long to corrupt this respectable class president into a megalomaniacal, self-styled “god” who commands criminals’ deaths from the comfortable safety of his bedroom, with only news reports to inform of who deserves to die.
As it happens, there’s also a master detective in this world--known only by the alias “L”--with deductive reasoning on so higher a level that he’s able to notice a pattern in these seemingly random natural deaths. He suspects that there’s an individual who’s somehow murdering these criminals and prisoners, and his brilliant deductions put him right on the trail of Light, who's actually developed an internet cult who worships him as a god of vengeance named “Kira.”
This story started in a 12 volume manga series that ran from ‘03 to ’06. It was followed by two series of adaptations--a live-action trilogy and a 37-episode animated TV show--which were released over the next couple years into ’08. I honestly can’t recommend the movies, which cram L and Kira’s sprawling cat & mouse game into impractically short confines, and also kill any sense of mood with obnoxiously inappropriate production design. They look like horror movies made by a director of IKEA commercials.
Aside from a few choice changes, the anime follows the manga quite faithfully. Almost by rote, in fact. So much so that the print version actually does feel like a storyboard for the TV show, so any choice between the two will simply come down to how you prefer to consume the exact same material. Incidentally, the anime actually has a rather superb dub track.
THE CHARACTERS & THEMES
If you get much into the theoretical and thematic underpinnings of horror, Death Note's quite thrilling for being something of a spiritual successor to Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. It introduces a new monster--not an old monster with a wardrobe change--to truly embody the anxieties of our times. As Frankenstein's Monster is a golem for the dawn of science, so too is Kira a demon for the information age. It's by no accident of plotting that the internet delivers Light his victims and subsequently trumps him up into the "god" he sees himself as, letting him deal out pain and self-aggrandizement from a comfortable distance nestled behind the empowering mask of online anonymity. There's a real rich dynamic in how he's not some wretched outcast, but a rich and popular pretty boy who can literally switch his persona off and retreat to suburbia whenever the heat on Kira gets too hot.
What really makes this story so enthralling, though, is Light's antagonism with L. Death Note's unusual in this kind of fiction for maintaining a truly uncompromising moral ambiguity. You can view either of these guys as the hero or villain according to what your own compass dictates. Whether you're for L or against him, though, he's still one of those rare fictional characters whom you're intrigued to simply hear what he'll say in any given situation. Something of a combination of Batman and Lisbeth Salander, actually, he's a more realistic vision of what a master detective would be like: a hermit who’s spectacularly cunning and brilliant, yet so lacking in such basic fundamentals of grooming and social skills that it's easy to wonder if he’s autistic.
WILL IT WORK IN AMERICA?
Black's insisting that he'll keep his remake truer to the source material than what the studio's proposed so far. Even beyond the usual localization, an adaptation of Death Note will have to surmount some serious hurdles to become a movie for the American mass audience. For one, it's a very tricky story to categorize, freely shifting between horror, crime, mystery, suspense, espionage and dark fantasy. The scary "magical realism" is reminiscent of Stephen King, the suspense portions feel like serialized Hitchcock, the crime elements recall Zodiac or Se7en, the mystery parts seem like they're from a modern update of Sherlock Holmes (or a very stripped-down Batman,) the punk rock-styled urban fantasy recalls Neil's Gaiman's Sandman...
...in other words, it would be a hard movie to market.
The plotting of the show is rather novelistic, in that the meatier material lies later on, when this provocative premise is taken as far as it can possibly go through years of plot timeline. The live-action movies have already shown how tough that all is to squeeze down into even a double feature. There's also a serious question of whether a movie about a high student writing the names of people he wants dead into his notebook would be too incendiary. Several American students have already gotten in trouble for playing copycats to Light.
And, as the screenshot above illustrates, Ryuk's goth outfit looks absolutely laughable in live action.
Still, similar things were said about Larsson's book before their filming, and they turned out just fine. And if there's anybody who can handle adapting this--who I'd pay to see how he'd even try to handle adapting this--it's Shane Black. Stay tuned. Perhaps this remake will make it through the long period of development ahead. You can always just check out the show or the books and put yourself ahead of the curve.