Netflix’s Death Note Live-Action Series Must Avoid the Movie’s Big Mistake

Stranger Things’ The Duffer Brothers have announced they’ll be adapting Death Note into a live-action series. Some changes will need to be made.

Photo: Netflix

Netflix is giving Death Note another try. After the lukewarm to negative reception of Netflix’s 2017 Death Note live-action film, the streamer is giving the property over to their biggest winners. This week, Stranger Things creators the Duffer Brothers announced they’ll be working on “an all-new live-action television series adaptation” described as “an entirely new take” separate from the movie.

Ignoring the 2017 movie is for the best. Not just because of the scathing reviews the film received upon release but because Death Note works best when it’s a serialized story told over a long season instead of trying to cram it all into two hours. After all, Death Note was originally conceived as a 12-volume manga — later adapted into a popular 37-episode anime — about how main character Light uses the titular Death Note, a notebook which kills anyone who’s name is written on its pages, to murder others and get away with it, and the wide-ranging repercussions of his actions. There’s no question that a TV series is the best format for a story with so much world-building as well as many story arcs, characters, and twists. Very good call by the Duffers.

But choosing the right format is only half the battle. The Netflix series must still be careful about how it repackages a story that’s already been told and re-told several times since the early 2000s. To deliver something that feels fresh for a new generation of viewers, the Duffer Brothers will have to update certain things about the original story. In 2017, director Adam Wingard tried to do this by making Light a more sympathetic person, replacing fan-favorite characters with new ones, and trying to tell a more “digestible” version of the plot in 100 minutes. This approach failed. How will the Duffers put their own unique spin on things? The setting could be one way.

The biggest question that hangs over this new version of Death Note: will it be set in the present day? The obvious answer would be yes, why not? It’s a modern adaptation of a story that takes place in the 2000s, which wasn’t that long ago. It should still work if it takes place in the 2020s, right?

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The problem is the ever-evolving technology of our world. The original Death Note manga began in 2003 and the anime in 2006. Smart phones were far from the ubiquitous items they are today, and if introduced into Death Note’s world now, they alone would create a sizable stumbling block for the story. Much of Death Note relies on Light avoiding detection, including by being able to hold secret conversations with the Shinigami Ryuk.

While surveillance cameras and the like did play a part in the original manga and anime, the addition of smart phones to the world would make it incredibly difficult for either Light, or his main rival L, to avoid detection. Add to that the proliferation of monitoring technology in major cities, and it would mean that any new Death Note series set in present day would have to alter its story in some way to address modern world advancements. Perhaps it’d have to throw out some of the more iconic moments of the original manga in favor of new strategies that Light can employ to avoid detection through smart phones.

If the Duffer Brothers need a guide on how to handle this, Death Note itself has provided some helpful guideposts. The one-shot manga sequel, The a-Kira Story, published in 2020, directly addresses how the world has changed since Light’s story. The manga is set in the present day and sees Ryuk give the Death Note to a new human, Minoru Tanaka, who specifically states that Light’s (also known as Kira) old tricks wouldn’t work now:

“There’s a security camera on every street corner now, and in every train car, and buses have dashcams. They’re more sophisticated at investigating cybercrimes. So if Kira tried to get his message out online, they’d track him down right away… and the police have tabs on all cell phone calls. Untraceable messages online only happen when TV shows and movies need to write that way to make things dramatic.”

In a-Kira, Tanaka avoids the use of the internet all together to try and sell the Death Note. He doesn’t even write in it because he’s so concerned about the possible repercussions. It should be noted that this manga is basically a side story, and it’s doubtful the Duffer Brothers will take very much from it. However, it at least demonstrates the things they should keep in mind if adapting Death Note for the present day.

Of course, this can all be avoided if the Duffers just stick to the mid-2000s for their series or hell, they could set it in the ‘80s for maximum Stranger Things synergy. That would certainly be a unique take on Death Note we’ve not seen before. The point is, after 20 years of Death Note adaptations, the new Netflix series will have to try new things to set itself apart, but it also needs to remember what made this story great in the first place.

What do you think the new Death Note series should update about this story? How would you like Do you think they’ll try to make Light/Kira even more sympathetic this time around?