Warning: this post contains ALL the spoilers. Also, like 13 Reasons Why, may be triggering for some people.
Within the last 2 weeks, I’ve both read the novel 13 Reasons Why by Jay Asher and binged the new Netflix series of the same name – which I think puts me in a minority. The few people I know who have read the book have done so years ago, compared to the multitudes watching the show right now. I’ve been reading article after article discussing the series – which is fair considering most people will only watch the show – but I think it unfairly lumps the author in with the producers. As someone who read the novel so close to viewing the show, I’m not only frustrated with how they handled an otherwise good story, but also baffled how they twisted it so far wrong.
The book is decent. More than decent – I’d give it 3.5 out of 5 stars. Definitely a suspenseful read (which was the whole aim of the author – a young adult suspense novel), characters that are believable enough (for YA fiction), and it does a good job at raising questions about important issues – bullying, sexual assault, suicide. You get inside Clay’s head enough to get important backstory to Hannah’s tapes – we see another view of the events, another memory of certain things, an inside view of how Hannah’s life looked to an outsider – yet Hannah’s tapes also allow her to dictate her side of things. The idea of a girl weaving her story, tape by tape, person by person, from beyond the grave is a brilliant idea for a novel. The author executes it well. To be sure, the addition of suicide makes it a bit twisted, messed up, and maybe not the best idea to plant in teens’ minds. But from a literary standpoint? Two thumbs up.
The book, like most YA fiction, reads like a movie waiting to happen. I totally get why Asher finally sold the rights to Netflix – 13 Reasons Why clicks perfectly with the new, trendy, made-for-Netflix series. A thirteen episode series would allow depth a movie never would, yet not require unnecessarily drawing out the story for a full TV season. I am such a fan of the Netflix series – allowing the time and space to tell good stories, while not requiring stuffing fluff in (and ruining) the storyline to extend the length. (I think that’s partly why Stranger Things was so brilliant.) All that to say – I was excited for the book to become a show. It had so much potential.
Unfortunately, I was incredibly let down.
I read a handful of articles about how the show failed to talk about mental health, how it did a bad job depicting suicide, how it was irresponsible. I also read my Twitter timeline where people were OBSESSED with it (apparently it’s the most talked about show on Twitter of 2017). Although I realize there’s a certain responsibility of media, I also thought it may be unfair to hold a show to standards. Literature, media, and the like are forms of art and I don’t know if we should police things as appropriate or irresponsible. Similar to the fine line of expecting professional athletes to be model citizens – we pay them to play sports. Not to be perfect humans. We don’t have a right to be upset when they’re horrible people and yet… we do.
Those were my thoughts going into the show. After watching all thirteen episodes, I can confidently say they were incredibly irresponsible. There were countless times I threw the remote on the floor (my roommate can attest) because they butchered another scene / changed a person too much / added in something ridiculous for 10 more minutes of drama. There were times I honestly wanted to just stop watching because it got so ridiculous (it’s like the car crash you can’t look away from – you want to, yet you just keep staring). Mostly, there were times I was upset they took an otherwise great storyline and ruined it for the sake of Hollywood.
In the very first episode, we see that Clay and Hannah have a relationship (platonic, but still a relationship) from the very beginning. This is frustrating because it puts the rest of the story in a different light. In the book Clay watches Hannah from afar for 2 years and then they work together one summer and finally (finally!) become friends and then, for one night, more than friends. Clay was a bystander to so much of the drama we hear on the tapes. He made assumptions and judgements of Hannah from the rumors – something he regrets doing, and we see him walk that path of regret, watch him slowly piece together the truth from the various rumors, as he follows the tapes. In the show, he’s front row to the drama, a friend to Hannah during it, and also so desperately in love with her it almost makes her look cruel for leading him on at times. I get how the two of them having a deeper, longer connection makes for a better show – but it changes the whole dynamic. It makes Clay seem more at blame for what happened (not being there for a close friend), than simply being the guy who unfortunately enters the story too late to save the girl.
The first episode also paints an unfair picture of Hannah. She’s manipulative and plays games, she – almost cruelly – enjoys egging a guy on. I hate the term, but it makes her seem like the stereotypical “slut” character we see in too many shows. In the book she was simply a girl with a crush, a girl who clumsily followed around a cute boy at school, a girl who was ecstatic when he asked for her number. Not the cool, calculated girl who creates hoops for guys to jump through and enjoys watching them fall. Again, this paints the rest of the story in a different light. We don’t feel as bad for the girl who did things to people, as we do for the girl who had so much done to her.
I could go on and on about differences between the book and the show – there are always so many. The book is always better. Always. Everyone knows this. But those two glaring differences changed the whole story from the beginning. Worse than simply straying from an original story (like adding in the relationship between Clay and Jeff or Hannah’s parent’s lawsuit), the show becomes incredibly problematic:
(Let’s go least to greatest)
The unnecessary depth added to characters.
The beauty of making it a show meant there was room to expand on the characters, add backstory, all that good stuff. This is exemplified in the locker room scene where Alex doesn’t quite lie but doesn’t tell the truth and allows the guys to think something that didn’t happen – it adds to the story of his tape while also adds to Clay’s personal experience with rumors about Hannah. But all the unnecessary drama – Justin and Jessica are dating now! Tony and Marcus used to be a couple! Alex is friends with a bunch of jocks…?! – takes away from the dynamic of Clay and Hannah. I get that showing the family life adds to characters as a whole and seeing the various students interact added to the story in small parts – yet the overall “gang” that is created from Hannah’s tapes feels fake, unrealistic, and forced. These are people who didn’t otherwise talk to each other, not people who group text and meet up in the hallways to discuss beating up Clay. Speaking of…
The strange subplot of trying to “get” Clay Jensen.
This was just strange. Maybe it was their way of adding extra drama into each episode, but this felt weird at best and ridiculous at worst. All the following, sullen glares, and stealing Clay’s bike was not necessary. At one point Justin hints at killing(…?) Clay to make their problems go away. What?! Maybe like, I don’t know, discuss the rape instead of adding in another meeting of kids asking “What’s he doing?” “What about now??” “Have you talked to him?” “You were gonna talk to him!” “Ugh, I’ll talk to him.”
The random addition of guns (with no discussion whatsoever about guns, gun safety, or the like.)
Jessica and Bryce playing with her dad’s gun safe while high – probably not a good idea. Let’s just have this weird scene and literally not reference it ever again. As well as show Tyler buy a gun and…. nothing. Oh and we can have Justin grab a gun and some money and throw it in his gym bag and pretend it’s totally normal. Okay, cool.
The strange morals it encourages.
Sheri legitimately thinks she can make up for knocking that stop sign over – and lying about it – by visiting the elderly couple once a week. Tony was beating someone up for some reason we never find out why. All of the kids continue to pick on Tyler and feel no remorse over it through the very last episode. They all feel okay with calling him a freak and shunning him, for taking pictures through a window, while they continue to PROTECT A RAPIST. The things depicted as “normal” and “okay” don’t make sense.
Clay’s ability to fix everything.
In the book we see a nerdy kid with a good heart trying to make sense of his high school, the death of a friend, and the complexity of the world. In the show, we see a kid rushing to the aide of everyone, trying to be the saving grace in every situation, and is the one moral compass in basically every situation. Not only is this not realistic, it’s problematic in perpetrating the idea that you can change people and you can save people. You can’t. You can be there alongside people as they choose to change themselves, but you can’t save someone. We don’t need to reinforce the idea that if you’re “good” enough you have this magical ability. We really don’t need the idea that if only we catch a rapist admitting to it on a tape recorder, we fix all the problems. In the last episode Clay talks to the school counselor about how they all killed Hannah and all could have saved her – an important point that your actions have consequences on others’ lives, but it was so heavy laden with “we could have saved her!” that it reeked of unhealthy responsibility for another person’s decision. It’s natural to blame yourself during grief, but Clay’s ability to fix people takes his blame to a whole new level.
It’s lack of discussion on mental health.
Ironically, the only time we really hear about an actual sickness, medicine, or counseling is in reference to Clay. I did appreciate the small bits about his anxiety, the pills he refused to take, and the (we assume) therapist he once used to go to. Yet there is little to no talk about Hannah suffering any kind of illness or having any struggles with mental issues – when more than 90% of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder. In the book we get snippets of bad things happening at her old school, rumors that went around there, why she wanted to leave that somewhat, maybe pointed to there being recurring issues her whole life. The book did a bad job of discussing mental health; the show did a horrible one. What could have been a great discussion was completely ignored – for all the “depth” they added to other characters and parts of the storyline, they kept this one glaringly silent.
The rape discussions.
The book wasn’t perfect in this regard, either. On Bryce’s tape, after Hannah talks about the rape, she says something along the lines of “let me be clear, I didn’t say no” as an excuse of what happened. I was so upset I had to physically put the book (cough my Kindle cough) down, because this was so problematic. Hannah was clearly raped, and yet felt like because she hadn’t said a little two letter word, it somehow fell under a different distinction. In the show, we see this again in her meeting with the school counselor – he asks if she said no, and then assumes her lack of a “no” meant she had consented but later changed her mind. I get this depicts the reality we live in – rape culture, lack of knowledge of what consent really is, victim blaming – but there was SO MUCH ROOM for the show (and the book!) to go into detail about how messed up this is. To talk about consent. To look at the definition of rape. Besides leaving room for the reader/watcher to get upset, there was nothing.
Oh my goodness. I can’t even begin to talk about the blunder the show made of this. Not only did it break oh so many of the guidelines about talking about suicide (discussed largely here) – it changes drastically from the book. In the story, we hear Hannah took some pills. That’s basically all we got of the story, possibly a few ideas about her parents finding her in her room. In the show we get an incredibly graphic, step by step breakdown of her stealing razorblades, filling up the tub, slitting her wrists, falling into the water, and her parents finding her. This was simply not necessary – not only was it irresponsible, but it served no purpose to the show. The book at least had warning signs of suicide to be aware of, and showed how Hannah exemplified some of them – cutting off her hair a week before, giving away her bike the day beforehand – in a small effort to educate the reader about these things. The show didn’t even try. This is so upsetting on so many levels, because it could have been a great way to educate a huge audience about what to be aware of, what to look for, what to do – instead it gave people a Hollywood how-to of suicide. Though they obviously follow the same storyline, the book came across as a “lost girl with no more hope, trying to piece together how her life got to this point, and left tapes to explain” feel while the show had a “hurting girl giving up on life leaves tapes to slowly and deliberately get back at everyone who got her to this point” feel. Suicide should never be seen as a solution, but also never, ever, ever seen as a way of getting revenge on people. This show paints a picture to viewers – largely the most anxious, depressed, and suicidal generation to date – of a seemingly exciting, attention-grabbing, manipulative way to end your problems and also wreak havoc on people who did you wrong.
To be fair, there were a few great things about the show. Casting wise, it was the most diverse I’ve seen in a while (and an incredibly talented cast). Besides Tony (WHY was he a 30+ mob boss of the school?!), all the kids looked like they could pass for high school kids more or less – unflattering clothes, bad haircuts, and the like. We need more of that realness on TV.
Clay’s parents were depicted as caring yet confused, trying to understand their son yet struggling. His dad was honestly my favorite character (and wasn’t in the book). It was refreshing to see an honest representation of parents and the struggles they go through, instead of characterizing them as utterly clueless like too many teen shows.
And the best thing the show did was center in on Clay’s realization of how girls live in a different reality than he does. He starts off as incredulous that something like a rumor or a list could affect a person so deeply – and then slowly realizes the things he’s been complicit in. His anger about the rapes and desire for people to be honest about them is important; his grief at the realization that most rapists will never be held accountable is important.
The book and the show have a great recurring theme of how our actions affect other people and how we’ll never truly know what’s going on in someone’s life. This is important, especially for teens to understand, but the little good this lesson does compared to the overall bad handling of the other messages does not even out.
The show is incredibly graphic and incredibly triggering to many (TWLOHA did a great piece on that). It also was incredibly popular, which makes me worried for all the teens out there glorifying the show or caught up in its hype. There’s already talks about a second seasons which is so utterly annoying and also not too surprising – we love ruining a good story to make a few bucks, right? Sigh.
Can we hold a Netflix show to higher standards? I think so. Whereas Gossip Girl or One Tree Hill are teenage drama with a side of school shooting / rape / suicide / fill in the blank, 13 Reasons Why is suicide and rape with a side a teenage drama. There was so much more at stake. They should have acted accordingly.