Jay Asher’s Thirteen Reasons Why, a 2007 young adult novel that many of us read in middle school or high school, recently became a Netflix-adapted mini-series. Released as 13 episodes thus far, this series focuses on the death of Hanah Baker, and more specifically, on the events and the people that led to her suicide. 13 Reasons Why has already become the most tweeted-about show in its first week of airing, with more than 3.5 million tweets about the series. It has very quickly become Netflix’s most popular series. However, for me, while I completely understand that this show is made for entertainment, and I do applaud how the producers have highlighted many issues that kids, teenagers, and young adults deal with daily, I do have problems with the implications of both the plot and the actual adaptation of the show. Suicide is a very difficult topic to tackle without being reductive, but in my honest opinion, the Netflix adaptation of the topic absolutely did reduce what I believe was the original takeaway of Asher’s novel. With such a wide platform and an incredible amount of resources, Netflix fell short with how they presented this series.
Now, if you like me have both read the book and watched the show, you probably noted a lot of changes between the two. That is, as always, expected when books are adapted into movies or shows. However, when you read the book, and this holds true for any book, you have your own imagery and your own thoughts that, for the most part, stay in your head. Now, when a book is adapted for the purpose of reaching millions of viewers, something changes. You are now forced to watch the story unfold from a specific viewpoint that was created with a specific purpose and message in mind. And of course, you can disagree with what you see on the screen, and still have your own opinion about it, but you inherently allow the new perspective to enter your brain.
The immediate difference between the show and the book, and the one that I think caused me to think that 13 Reasons Why allows people to romanticize mental health and suicide is the time span of the story. In the novel, the entire story takes place basically in one night. Clay receives the tapes and immediately listens to all 13 sides. However, the show spans the story line over weeks, with each side getting its own hour-long episode. This gives the viewer two options: binge-watch all 13 episodes or take the time to get through the show, just as Clay does with the tapes. By allowing for the change in the time span of the story, viewers see Hannah just as much as they see Clay: they get somewhat of a dual narrative, but by doing so, I believe the actual message gets stretched very thin. Now, the viewer focuses on the questions: “Who is most to blame for Hannah’s death” or “Is Hannah telling the truth?” or even “Who wins the lawsuit?” That is not the point. That is so very far from the point. I even found myself wondering about some of those points, even if I already had read the book and had my already-developed opinion of most of the characters. But by creating a long, drawn-out show from Asher’s words, we learn full backstories and personalities of characters that we may have met fleetingly in Asher’s world. Or we think about the characters differently. For instance, in the novel, Jenny Kurtz is the driver who knocks over a stop sign, that causes someone to die. That someone doesn’t really factor in Clay’s life, and thus, in the reader’s life, in the novel. However, on the show, Jenny is Sheri, someone who likes Clay, and the person who dies, Jeff, has a much larger role in the TV show. This makes Clay feel even more like he needs revenge whilst listening to the tapes.
Revenge is not the point. But it becomes the point.
One of the main plots we follow on the show is the one where most of the people on the tapes want to keep Clay from hearing the tapes. We see Justin and his friends trying to bully Clay from talking about it. We see Jessica worrying about if Clay will release the tapes. And we see Clay recording Bryce’s confession, creating an entirely new tape, leaving an opening for another season. And as I have been following the tweets for this show, I can completely see that revenge has become the point for many of the viewers. There are hundreds of tweets expressing how “Jeff Atkins deserved better”, or even less of a point how “hot” Bryce or Jeff is or that viewers wish they had “someone as in love with them as Clay was with Hannah in their lives”. That is not the point. The point is to focus on suicide, on depression, and on mental health. It’s to talk about it and recognize that it is a problem. While this show has definitely spurred the conversation in this direction, how long will we really talk about? Let’s be honest. When we finish the show, will we tweet “I have such a new perspective on this topic. Let me learn more. Let me do something” or will we tweet “Can’t wait for season 2!!!!!!!”
Essentially, my point is that this adaptation of a book that struck me with its point-blank truthfulness failed to capture the truth of suicide on the main screen. Not once was depression even discussed, other that perhaps for all of five seconds in the scene where parents were taught about warning signs of suicide. Changing the way Hannah committed suicide and actually depicting it on screen may have occurred with the purpose of saying “Look at how brutal this is. There is nothing romantic about this. Do you want your mom to have to go through that?” and it is indeed very difficult to watch, but there had to be a better way to be “look-at-me” while still doing something for youth suicide prevention. For teens and even young viewers binge-watching this show, the graphic depiction of the suicide, followed by the continuation of the prior idea of revenge as Clay hands off the tapes to Mr. Porter, the wrong message can be presented. The message becomes: “Look at what everyone else made Hannah do. Look at how many people are to blame for her death”.
That logic is incorrect. None of the people discussed on the tapes forced Hannah to commit suicide. They were definitely a part of why Hannah felt the actions she needed to commit was necessary, but they are not the sole reason. Hannah is the reason Hannah committed suicide. Mental illness is the reason Hannah committed suicide. But mental illness is not discussed. Depression is not discussed. And these things are different for everyone: they look different on everyone. So the point isn’t that Hannah doesn’t seem to fit the traditional mental illness or depression symptoms. Everyone shows their battles in a different way. You cannot look at a person and understand what they are going through. So my problem is absolutely not with how Hannah is depicted. My problem is with how little the producers chose to do with the giant platform they have. The producers knew what audience this show would target. They knew the numbers they would reach, the lives they may have the ability to affect. So why is that they couldn’t put a simple PSA at the end of every episode with resources or information? Why couldn’t they provide links or interviews or any form of awareness and education on the topic of mental health? If their point was to adapt a novel about the reality of suicide, why was it so romanticized?
While I do think this show moves away from actually addressing mental health, depression, and suicide in the way that it should be addressed, I do think it did a terrific job in bringing to light the bullying present in today’s society. I was especially impressed that it did incorporate social media into the plot, which was obviously not prominent in Asher’s novel. Social media is a huge determinant in bullying, in emotional and mental health, and in self-esteem, so I was very glad to see it addressed on such a wide level. It is absolutely pivotal in why so many adolescents battle with depression, with negative self-esteem, with suicidal thoughts, or just a general feeling to be “anywhere but here”. So while the show does provide insight into the cultural world of teens and addresses situations that need to be discussed openly more (such as sexual assault), it trivializes and sensationalizes the main concern, opting to blame only the action’s of others for Hannah’s death, rather than recognizing the complexity of the entirety of one’s mental health.