I remember reading the bestselling book Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher when I was maybe 15/16 years old. Not much younger than the characters depicted, I found the book heart-breakingly honest about people’s natural self-involvement and lack of compassion for others. I heard several years ago that attempts were being made to adapt the book for the screen so when it popped up on my Netflix homepage I clicked to watch the first episode immediately.
Note: This does include plot spoilers.
The premise of the story starts a few weeks after the suicide of Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). The protagonist Clay (Dylan Minnette), an awkward teenage boy who you learn later on has feelings for Hannah receives a box full of cassette tapes with the numbers 1 to 13 painted in blue nail varnish upon them. When played he is startled to hear Hannah’s voice who then tells the tale of the 13 reasons as to why she ended her life as well as instructions on an elaborate chain-message to pass the tapes along to the people she deems responsible for her death. The exchange of the tapes is being monitored by an initially unknown person (although in the Netflix series it becomes obvious very quickly who this is) and the recipients of the tapes are kept quiet under threat of the information on the tapes becoming public.
The main difference between the book and the adaptation is a huge expansion of characters due to Clay no longer listening to all the tapes in one night and having an emotional journey that built up to the conclusion, the world is expanded having Clay instead listen to them over a series of weeks and confronting the characters involved in Hannah’s story. In some ways I think this strengthens the stories, giving a voice to these character’s experiences which aren’t Hannah’s point of view. More aspects become connected and thrilleresque subplots develop around the central storyline which adds more suspense to the story and allows the characters and story to become far more complicated and nuanced than in the original text. I particularly liked how Hannah’s parents were handled within the show and how the show explored grief and loss both from Clay’s and Hannah’s parents perspective.
However, some scenes feel manipulatively distressing particularly the key scene in the final episode in which you watch step by step as Hannah commits suicide graphically in a bath and how her parents find her lifeless body. The scene is clearly supposed to be horrific and upsetting but I don’t think that watching the full suicide brought anything to the show other than being purposefully shocking for shocking’s sake. On the other hand, I will note that there are disclaimers at the start of the episodes in which these scenes are shown. Other aspects of the show feel overly dramatised and stray too far from the main point of the story, especially the pretty weak attempt at setting up a second season.
Despite this, the show is compelling. The two leads are fantastic pulling off great chemistry as well as bringing a sense of longing from both sides of the relationship. I enjoyed some of the new subplots as well as Clay’s (much longer) journey to discovering the reasons and I still think the story has a clear and important message of looking outwards and encouraging you to reach out and connect with those who may be hurting.
If you have Netflix, and especially if you enjoyed the book it is definitely worth checking out this adaptation.