WARNING: This piece contains spoilers for Thirteen Reasons Why
Upon its release in 2007, Jay Asher’s debut young adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why sparked conversations and controversy around the world. The story, which follows the aftermath of a teen suicide told through the tapes the victim sent to others to explain her choice, remained on the New York Times best-seller list for many weeks and is still a favorite in the genre, even as audiences’ tastes veered more towards the supernatural. It also had its fair share of critics, who found issue with the ways in which the novel handles the topics of suicide and depression. As noted by award winning young adult author Hannah Moskowitz in her review of the novel:
“The very premise of the book is flawed to me; you don’t kill yourself for REASONS, you kill yourself because there is a bug in your brain gnawing at you and sucking out any valuable thought you’ve ever had, and I never saw that kind of bug in Hannah.”
Whatever strengths the novel has are smudged away by its need to create dramatic tension over nuanced characterization. Asher’s aims were noble, but his execution sorely lacking.
Now, the novel has been adapted into a Netflix series, with a creative team of notable talents, including Pulitzer Prize winning writer Brian Yorkey (Next To Normal), Oscar winning writer-director Tom McCarthy (Spotlight), and popular musician Selena Gomez, who acts as executive producer. In an interview with the New York Times, Yorkey and Gomez (along with fellow executive producer Mandy Teefey, Gomez’s mother) explained the decision to adapt the book to a series rather than a film, as originally planned:
TEEFEY One of the reasons it didn’t work as a feature was that there wasn’t enough time to tell the stories of the other characters and why they were making the decisions they were making. [Brian] was able to make them three-dimensional so that, at some point, you felt badly for them, too. That’s why the feature [script] didn’t work. Hannah just seemed mean.
YORKEY The book takes place in one night and spends most of the time telling the story of Hannah in the past. So we expanded the present-day story. Part of it was figuring out the best way to be very faithful to the book but at the same time to reinvent it as television.
It is in this expansion of the story’s ensemble where the series vastly improves upon the novel. The series gives a greater sense of the world and its people, whereas the book relies on broad archetypes to get its point across – the bitch, the jock, etc – which feels clichéd and robs the story of much needed shades. Giving the characters who receive the tapes from Hannah (Katherine Langford) a greater role in the story, and allowing the audience to see them as people rather than evil strawmen, adds much needed layers to Hannah’s own tale, and contextualizes the fraught situation she finds herself in.
Clay (Dylan Minnette) benefits the most from this. As the central focus of the book outside of Hannah, Clay is nothing but a bland nice guy – a single trait that washes away any edges or potentially abrasive moments, including the ending. He pines for Hannah from a distance in the novel, but has little interaction with Hannah before her death. In the show, he’s still a generally good person, but he’s nervous, awkward, a loner and struggles with his complicity in Hannah’s suicide.
The novel quickly tosses this aside by having Hannah insist he’s utterly blameless in her death and is just a Nice Guy, possibly the only Nice Guy in the entire tale. The show is smarter than that, and hammers home the message the book chickened out on – everyone played their part in making Hannah’s life worse, be it through active aggression or just going along with the crowd. To be silent is to be complicit, and Clay understands that in the show. He can’t shake that feeling, whereas in the book he’s just relieved to be the nice guy exception, exempt from the pain.
Outside of the central pairing, the ensemble of the series is far more diverse than the novel. In Asher’s book, race and sexuality aren’t specified for any of the characters, but the series gives prominent roles to actors of color, and includes multiple LGBTQ characters, most notably Courtney, whose denial of her own sexuality becomes a critical plot point.
The extended length of the series works to its benefit in a manner a novel under 300 pages will always struggle with. Here, there is time to breathe and it does wonders with the high-concept structure of the book. It doesn’t undo the inherent issue of structuring a story about a woman’s suicide like a mystery, with readers hanging on for a dramatic payoff, but it eases the borderline-exploitative nature of that to the extent that Hannah’s story is allowed to flow organically, with her decidedly in control. The novel feels cheap in its approach while the TV show has greater compassion in its take.
Thirteen Reasons Why in both mediums has to deal with the baggage of its cultural context, wherein stories of beautiful, brutalized women are used all the time for dramatic tension. On the page, Hannah feels like a spectre, looming over the characters who listen to the tapes she records, but we never get a sense of the life she lived and the difficulties she encountered. In the show, she has her voice, both literally in the tapes and as the guide through her own life. As noted by Kathryn VanArendonk in her piece on Vulture:
“It’s not the world versus the unanswerable enigma of a beautiful deceased body, but the world listening to Hannah as she wanted to be heard, and then struggling with how to respect and respond to that story.”
Thirteen Reasons Why is not a good book. It’s an earnest attempt to tackle a very serious issue, but it’s plagued by the need to be dramatic in its storytelling, and thus sacrifices much of the nuance and compassion necessary to do the themes justice. As a television show, 13 Reasons Why thankfully transcends its source’s trappings to create a far better story that’s much more successful in its aims. It’s a striking story, often imperfect, but authentic in its approach to modern teen life, and it understands the difficulties of its central themes in a way the novel barely touched upon. The show gives Hannah and her story the room to breathe it so sorely needed.
If you or somebody you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website.