Hollywood has a long history of taking foreign movies, TV shows, and literature and adapting them for a more American context. Sometimes the movies are outright remakes (The Ring, The Departed, Let Me In) or they are reinterpretations of the original material (both American Godzilla movies). The act of adapting non-American material is often fraught with danger as to stick too closely to the original material might make it less appealing to American audiences due to its close ties with the original culture. And yet to do something completely new with the same material might cause it to lose whatever made in interesting in the first place. Add to that the completely legitimate discussion of appropriating another culture and the equally legitimate issue of “whitecasting” – casting white actors in roles originally written as non-white characters – and you wonder why Hollywood even tries in the first place. But where there is a buck to be made, then that is where you will find Hollywood executives so it is no surprise that these movies keep getting made (with varying levels of success).
Recently I had the privilege (?) to see two less-than-successful adaptations of foreign material in Ghost in the Shell and Death Note. Both of these adaptations of highly successful Japanese anime and manga series were hit right from the start with the accusation of whitecasting as white actors and actresses were cast in roles that were explicitly written as Japanese in the original properties. Naturally both production teams were quick to defend themselves against the accusation, and while Death Note’s defence is slightly more acceptable both are weak defences at best.
(Note: At a personal level I am a little apprehensive about the issue of whitecasting as mortal sin because the logical conclusion to the argument goes that only people of the original race can play someone written as that race. If we truly adopted that approach then I, as a very mixed person of multiple heritages but no dominant heritage or race, would pretty much be disqualified from playing any written role. Nonetheless I am supportive about the accusation of whitecasting in these cases because the reason for casting white people in non-white roles has less to do with artistic direction and more to do with pure laziness on the part of the production teams. They defaulted to white people when it really wouldn’t have taken much effort to find non-white actors.)
Ghost in the Shell‘s solution to the problem of casting Scarlett Johannson in the role of Major Matoko Kusanagi manages the rare feat of somehow making the problem worse. Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell tries to get around the problem by making Johannson’s character Japanese but after getting wounded in the front lines her essence is transferred into a robot that looks like Johannson. By doing so, you could argue that the movie adds the accusation of yellowface (having white people play explicitly Asian characters) on top of the whitecasting. And on top of that this doesn’t explain why a movie that’s clearly still set in an Asian context has so few Asians in it (you really couldn’t find any Asian or Asian American actor to take up the other roles? Really?).
Death Note’s defence however initially holds up because Adam Wingard has explicitly transported the original manga and anime into an American context by setting it in Seattle. On the surface, I have no issue with doing something like that because it assumes that translation will take place and it is potentially a fertile ground for creativity. I think of how Hayao Miyazaki’s Ponyo works as a uniquely Japanese take on the Danish story of “The Little Mermaid” or of how The Birdcage added new energy to the original French play La Cage Aux Folles by changing the setting to South Beach, Miami. There has to be a place for telling a story in a completely different context and so it is at least more understandable that the Japanese Light Yagami becomes the White American Light Turner. However having survived that initial accusation of whitecasting, the larger problem Wingard’s film has is that his setting isn’t even an accurate reflection of the story he’s trying to tell. It is perhaps more galling and unacceptable that Death Note is set in a supposed Seattle that has no Asian Americans anywhere in it, even though Seattle has one of the largest Asian populations in America. The only major significant minority character is that of L, who has been recast as a black man who is inexplicably based in Japan. So while Wingard has changed the setting, it is clear that Wingard vision of America is basically of a White America. This is more problematic than any accusation of whitecasting, but unfortunately it is also much more typical (another reminder to casting directors that 1 in 4 Americans are not White).
But amazingly, despite the highly problematic issues of whitecasting in both of these train wrecks, they don’t come close to being the most egregious errors they commit. Instead they break the cardinal sins of how to adapt a movie:
1. Don’t Forget What Makes The Original Special:
The original Ghost in the Shell (1995) movie is as much a philosophical rumination of the nature of self and identity in an age of artificial intelligence. For every action scene in that movie there is an equal amount of deep conversations about the dehumanizing nature of technology and the inherent alienation that results. It is a dense movie that is not easily summarized and begs many revisits. It is probably this complexity that has made it get as passionate a following as it has.
The remake however eschews all but the most superficial philosophical concepts in favour of a crime action thriller. And while the action is impressively shot and the special effects are equally spell-binding there is no mistaking that it is all style and no substance. Tragically, but all too typically, the filmmakers decided that the only way this property could be palatable for American audiences was by dumbing it down and in so doing the movie loses anything that makes it unique and interesting. Instead it is merely another effects ridden action thriller.
Wingard’s Death Note does something similar. The original anime series (which in full disclosure is my only other familiarity with the series) is a fantastic macabre series about a high school student who gets the chance to remake the world in his own image when he gets possession of the titular “Death Note” – a notebook that will kill anybody whose name is written in it. Light Yagami is a brilliant student, but with a very clear view of what is wrong with the world but more importantly a very clear idea of how to fix it. Possessing the notebook just becomes the key to achieving his sociopathic and Machiavellian dreams of recreating a better world in his own image by ridding the world of all its criminals. As he proceeds with his plan of executing criminals he is met by his counterpart named “L”, a crack genius investigator who slowly narrows in on the killer. The heart of the series then is the clash between these two geniuses, a Holmes-Moriarty type confrontation but told with an operatic and almost Wagnerian flair.
Instead Wingard decides to do something else. What that something else is unclear because his movie is all over the place. But instead of the charismatic but dangerous Light Yagami, the American Light Turner is a jumpy and not particularly bright high-school student. Rather than the elitist disgust Yagami has for the world, Turner’s desire for justice is motivated by the death of his mother. Instead of being internally motivated to use the death note by his megalomanic desire to make the world in his own image, Turner is convinced by his girlfriend to use it that way. Just about every character decision made by Wingard simply makes the character less interesting and unique than the original, and as a result the movie itself is equally generic and boring.
(Moody teen genericness vs. charismatic sociopath)
This is perhaps the biggest missed opportunity for Wingard’s movie because rather than settling for a generic American high school student there is just so many ways to adapt Light Yagami for an American context. Perhaps he could be a genius “law and order” type of person and Wingard could’ve played with the various ways law and order and race are intertwined (with Light either furthering the unjust ways law enforcement targets race or as someone who tries to reverse it). Additionally in an increasingly divided America with so many different visions of what is wrong with America and how to fix it, the context is ripe for an interesting take on a megalomaniacal Light trying to recreate the world in his own image. But alas, Wingard settles for something decidedly unambitious instead.
2. You can’t have your cake and eat it
This particular point was highlighted by YouTuber Nerdwriter, so I really can’t take credit for it. So check it out here, I’ll wait:
Basically the Ghost in the Shell remake tries to tell an original story within the Ghost in the Shell universe. But it is so beholden to 1995 original movie that multiple scenes are recreated shot-for-shot in the belief that these scenes will evoke the same emotion completely devoid of the original context. Quite obviously that instinct is highly misplaced, resulting in a movie in which I spend half the time distracted by the attempts of mirroring the original and the other half trying to piece together the new story the remake is trying to tell. In trying to evoke the original and break away with it, the movie accomplishes neither resulting in a muddled mess.
The problem Death Note has however is a slightly different one. The manga is 12 volumes long and the anime series runs 37 episodes. Obviously trying to condense that into a regular feature length movie is probably a futile attempt. And yet once again, this is exactly what Wingard tries to do as the first half of the movie follows beat-for-beat the first chapters of the manga, only diverging for an extremely weak third act. L, who is one of the main characters of the story, doesn’t even show up until halfway through this 100 minute movie. Instead of focusing on the central conflict of the story, Wingard spends an equal amount of time adding a third party that does nothing but distill the special potency of the Light-L confrontation. Wingard should’ve known that the only way a feature length movie would work is if he focused solely on the central conflict and moved every other character and plotline firmly to the periphery. Without doing that, the movie was doomed from the start.
3. Remember that fans aren’t stupid
The original Ghost in the Shell remains one of the most beloved anime films of all time. In addition the Death Note series equally has a large number of fans. While I don’t think that one should make a movie that strictly tries its best to please the fans of the original, it is similarly pointless to create something with the IP that completely alienates the people who love the original. Since word-of-mouth matters so much more to the box-office this day it makes no sense to dilute a product so much that fans of the franchise – who will be the first in line to see your remake – leave with a sense that you’ve betrayed the product. As a fan of both of these original properties, I don’t have any motivation to say that you should check out these remakes. Instead I’m just going to argue that you’re better off watching the originals. And if I, as a fan, can’t find it in myself to recommend the product what hope is there that a random person is going to fall in love with the product itself?
This isn’t to say that the adaptations can’t innovate, change, or diverge from the original product. There was nothing more exciting for me to do the day Batman Begins came out than to say “It’s completely different from the Batman you know, but it’s really good.” Similarly innovations that are well-thought out and well executed will always be welcomed by fans. But you can’t dumb it down. You can’t dilute it. You can’t innovate in ways that betray the original. And you can’t expect that alienating fans of the original is a path to success.
It is a truly astounding but not at all surprising feat that both of these movies manage to be both highly offensive in their casting decisions but extremely boring in their creative choices. Ultimately it is clear that the motivation for making these movies had much less to do honouring the spirit of the original and more to do with cynical cash-grabbing (or in the case of Death Note, whatever metric Netflix decides to use to determine success). Hopefully the box-office flop Ghost in the Shell was and the derision both of these films have unequivocally earned prompts studios to adapt future foreign properties with some tact and concern for quality. But I’m not holding my breath.
Now please excuse me while I brace myself for whatever horror Hollywood tries to conjure up while they adapt Akira.
Ghost in the Shell: ★★. It is still a competent if completely forgettable action-thriller. All show with no substance.
Death Note: ★. There is only one way that Death Note improves on the original and that is by creating a marginally better written female love interest (the series’ depiction continues the unfortunate anime tradition of underwritten and heavily objectified female characters). But the rest of it is a complete waste of time.