Netflix's highly-anticipated adaptation of Japan's Death Note franchise is finally here, and the results are... Not pretty. While the movie has a niche group of supporters, the general consensus lands somewhere between ambivalence and outright hate. The film sits at a paltry 41 on Metacritic and many longtime fans are taking umbrage at two main flaws: the dumbing-down of the original story, and the whitewashing of the entire cast as a result of its American setting.
The question is, are these two points connected? Why are movies whitewashed, and why do these movies often tend to wind up on the wrong end of the Rotten Tomatoes Tomatometer?
Despite the change in setting and the racial makeup of its cast, Death Note has been berated for not actually taking advantage of its updated setting to tell a new story; there's no Americana in the film, as though the setting was changed to fit the whitewashed cast, rather than the other way around. Throw in the arbitrary scenes which actually are set in Japan, and Death Note's weak-willed efforts towards diversity reek of uninspired laziness. If that's the case, then why change the setting at all? Why whitewash when it will inevitably court the wrong kind of media attention?
The Compromise Of Adaptation
IndieWire's review of Death Note ties the movie's setting/casting and the shallowness of the end result together, making the case that:
"Whitewashing is never a purely aesthetic act; it’s always an indication of a deeper rot. In this case, it pointed toward an inability or unwillingness to meaningfully engage with the source material."
As beloved as Death Note may be to its many fans, it still inhabits a relatively niche market in the United States. In Japan, where the series originated, Manga and Anime are not considered "lower" art forms the way animation and comics continue to be seen stateside. Despite the enormous success of films based on superheroes, going all the way back to 1978's Superman: The Movie, there remains a lack of cultural acceptance of the relevance of comics and animation. Remember the hubbub when Sandman #19: A Midsummer Night's Dream won the 1991 World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story? Or when Beauty and the Beast was nominated for the 1991 Academy Award for Best Picture? Debates continue to this day over the merit, or lack thereof, of "lower" art forms like animation and graphic novels.
When adapting an anime (or manga, or graphic novels), steps are taken to expand the audience from the niche market to ensure more mainstream appeal. It's a commonly accepted practice; in order to be successful, thoughtful works of art must be changed to suit the film medium and its core demographic: "general audiences."
Star Trek went from a cerebral science fiction anthology about real world issues on television to a whiz-bang adventure in the vein of Star Wars during its most recent cinematic reinvention; Transformers became minor supporting characters in their own movies because Paramount executives thought audiences would relate more to human leads; the X-Men ditched their wacky spandex of the comics in favor of more "cinematic" black leather, to say nothing of changing lead character Wolverine from a short ugly fuzzball to the living Adonis that is Hugh Jackman.
Were these the right decisions for the properties to make? They all were hugely financially successful, and more-or-less held on to the original fanbase, even when they, in some form or another, made compromises with the source material. Everything in Hollywood is about compromise. In the case of Death Note, if a movie studio wants to make an honest adaptation, bringing forward the cerebral duel of wits between Light and L while utilizing the original Japanese setting and thus keeping the characters Japanese, then it's a sad fact that significant funding will be harder to come by.
However, if this version of Death Note is intended be a big-budget event intended to appeal to American sensibilities, then the cost of grand production values means straying away from the source material: swapping the setting from Japan to America, race-lifting the entire cast, and trading the cat-and-mouse mind games into a teen horror slasher-fest where heads get cut off by ladders, a la Final Destination.