SPOILER ALERT: I’ve tried my best not to give away too many spoilers, but be warned that quite a few lie ahead.
You’ve probably seen news of 13 Reasons Why appear on your social media feeds at some point in the past few weeks. The Netflix series has undoubtedly been one of the company’s strongest productions, garnering viewership of millennial subscribers across the globe. I remember reading the book when it first came out in 2007, and I was very excited to find out it was being turned into a show. Having watched the show in 2017, I found that I understood the severity of the story better as I had read the book at quite a young age. I also found that the plotline of the TV show was better than the book, for reasons that I will soon explained.
The show, aptly panned out over thirteen episodes, documents two parallel storylines. One is that of Clay Jensen, who receives a box of seven cassette tapes, with thirteen recordings of his classmate and love interest Hannah Baker, who committed suicide a few weeks prior to the beginning of the show. The second storyline documents what Clay hears on the tapes. Each recording represents a person and event which made Hannah feel the need to take her own life.
The show marks the 10th anniversary of a book of the same, Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher. Asher was involved in discussing and approving the storyline of the TV show, and even helped promote it. Along with promotion of the show, Netflix, the show’s cast and executive producer Selena Gomez also took part in many interviews. Through this all, continuous awareness was promoted for youth suicide and mental health issues.
13 Reasons Why has been noted for its portrayal of Hannah Baker and its representation of mental health, bullying, suicide and a school out of touch with its students. What I found particularly interesting was the way in which the show delved into the backgrounds of the people on Hannah’s tapes, which is a complete divergence from the book. Having read the book when it first came out, I was extremely excited that it had been turned into an arc of episodes.
What excited me even more was the differences between the show and book. I appreciated the back stories of characters such as Justin, Zach, Courtney and Jessica, but I also appreciated the diversity that the show introduced into the show. I assumed that most of the characters in the book were white, given their names and limited character description. The show introduces Courtney as an American-Chinese closeted lesbian, with two dads, showcases Jessica as a half-black, half-white troubled teen, Zach as an American-Chinese jock with a soft spot, Tony as a gay Latino and much more. The introduction of characters of different race and sexuality gives the show a more realistic feel, and I found myself more invested in the show because of it.
I also appreciated the greater interactions that existed between Hannah and Clay, from their days working at the cinema together, to meeting at their school prom and at “the party”. In the show, Clay is one of Hannah’s first friends when she moves to the new town and school chronicled in the series. Clay and Hannah meet through a mutual friend who leaves town and the story until the very last episode. This is a marked difference from the book, which briefly mentions Clay and Hannah working together from Clay’s point of view, and the party where Hannah and Clay connect for the first time. The greater interaction between the two characters portrays a greater sense of loss and anger that Clay feels, as well as his regret at not telling Hannah how much he loved her. Moreover, in the ten years since the book has released, social media and smartphones have become commonplace, so the writing of the show was adapted to show rumours regarding Hannah, pictures of her and poetry that Hannah had written being spread via text and social media to other students
The show has been praised for its portrayal of mental health issues but has also been greatly criticized. Many have given positive reviews of the depiction of rape, sexuality, depression, bullying and suicide in the series, but others feel that its graphic portrayal of these issues, including the way in which Hannah kills herself as well as the way in which Jessica and Hannah are both respectively raped by Bryce. Fox News recently wrote an article stating that the show, whilst informative and important, could have done better to show alternatives to suicide.
Jay Asher recently stated that he wanted to change the story to show Hannah as having attempted suicide and survived, but decided that she should die in order for the core message of the book to stay with readers, and thereafter viewers of the show; that our seemingly harmless one-off actions do impact people heavily. As a viewer of the show and reader of the book, I did not view the actions of Hannah’s “reasons” as harmless, and felt that had she been able to turn to others around her for help, the course of her life would have been different. This is something we can apply to our lives too.