**Warning: May contain spoilers — I apologize, but it is difficult to talk about this series without going into some detail**
**Also warning: This review became much longer than I expected!**
I first read Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher within the first year or so that it was released. At the time, I thought the book was a very powerful story and it was one of the strongest books I’d read in a while. When I heard Netflix was putting together a miniseries, I was very excited to see how this book would translate to the screen. Since it had been so many years since I first read it, I purposely re-read the book just before starting the series so it was fresh in my mind as I watched.
Plot (and Plot Changes)
Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker, a teenage girl who committed suicide and leaves a set of cassette tapes explaining her reasons for doing so. The tapes are sent to each of the people she considers a reason for her actions. In the book, the story is told from the perspective of Clay Jensen, a classmate and co-worker of Hannah’s, who is shocked to receive the tapes. In the span of one night, Clay bikes around town while listening to Hannah’s story, waiting to find out how he fits into it. Each person is asked to listen to the tapes all the way through, and pass them on to the person mentioned after them, or else all of the tapes will be publicly released. Over the course of the tapes, Hannah talks about the people and their actions that led her to consider and eventually commit suicide, each story building on the last to weave an interconnected web showing how each person’s actions built on each other into an overwhelming snowball effect.
In the Netflix series, the plot is altered in several places, most of which help to make it easier to translate the page to the screen. In the book, the majority of the story takes place in Clay and Hannah’s minds, as he listens to the tapes and she recounts what happened. While this could have been shown through flashbacks, it probably would not have had the same impact as it had in the book. The biggest change in terms of the pacing is that instead of listening to the tapes in one night, Clay has trouble coping with what he hears to the point where he nearly gives up listening several times and takes much longer to get through them all. Another major change is Clay’s focus on avenging Hannah, and fantasies about what he could have or should have done to help Hannah.
Actually, the biggest change overall was the inclusion of a brand-new storyline focusing on a lawsuit that Hannah’s parents have initiated against the school for failing to recognize that their daughter needed help. Unlike in the book, where the people Hannah named on her tapes did not seem to interact much, the characters on the show are very heavily involved with each other as they band together to keep the tapes from being discovered. This added an extra level of depth to characters who were not so fully fleshed out in the books. We get to see them as fully-formed people, and not just their behaviour as it relates to Hannah. This was quite a jarring plot change for me at first, making the series feel almost like a sequel focusing on the other characters, rather than Hannah’s story itself. One very interesting plot point that was mentioned but never really followed up was the suggestion that Hannah might not be so reliable as a narrator. A couple of hints were dropped here and there that what she said on the tapes was not quite true, and I wish they would have explored this a bit deeper.
In other cases, the plot changes were mostly in the specifics of certain events. The biggest of course is that Hannah’s method of suicide was dramatically changed. Whereas in the book she takes a handful of pills, in the show, she (quite graphically — I could not watch the scene) slits her wrists in the bathtub. In several interviews with the cast and crew, it was mentioned that this was changed to avoid glamourizing suicide and making it look “easy” or like “just going to sleep.” Other changes were in the details of her stories about specific characters — some of which (such as Justin taking a photo which gets leaked) had to do with updating the show to be more like today, whereas others (ie. Courtney) were a bit more questionable at least in terms of how necessary the changes were. For the most part, I would have preferred if the reasons had stuck closer to the book since I thought the progression was a bit more clear — in the book, I could really easily see how one person’s actions led to the next, and why it felt like such a build-up for Hannah. In the show, I thought the impact of a few of the reasons got a bit lost. Once I got used to the new “aftermath” storyline affecting the people named on the tapes, I actually really enjoyed it.
Characters & Casting
To me, one of the strongest elements of the show was the casting choices. I really appreciated how the show seamlessly included a diverse cast of characters into a story where very little information was ever offered about anyone’s race or sexual orientation. In many shows or movies like this, it is easy for people to just assume that the characters all look a certain way, even when the book does not specify. As a whole, I found the cast impressive. I was especially impressed by Katherine Langford (playing Hannah) as this was her first acting role. In general, the cast so genuinely embodied their roles that I often forgot that I was watching a fictional series.
In terms of the characters, I have always thought this book presented an interesting, realistic group of high school students. I liked how all of the characters were more fully fleshed out in the series. I loved how we got to see more of Hannah’s personality and her life before the tapes, and especially her friendship with Clay. That is not necessarily to say that Hannah is a perfect person — she is not, nor should she be viewed as such. I actually read a very interesting article yesterday about how Hannah is “the worst” for a variety of reasons, but it ended by saying that Hannah easily could have been a reason one someone else’s tapes, if anyone else made them. For me, that just hit home the real impact of this series — that the way we treat others matters, and everyone has an impact on the people around them, whether we know it or not. We see several examples in the show of cases where Hannah probably wasn’t such a good friend, wasn’t nice to others, etc. But ultimately, the story we get is limited to Hannah’s perspective, so of course we are drawn to show only how others affected her. I have seen several complaints that Hannah was selfish and her reasons were trivial, but in the end, they mattered to her and I would argue that suicide is always a somewhat selfish act.
In the book, Clay was a relatively bland character that we learn very little about. All we know is that he is a nice guy who is shocked that Hannah would “blame” him for her death. In the show, we get a little more depth into Clay. He is still a nice guy, and one who seems to have some anxiety issues that are alluded to and quickly dropped again. However, throughout the series, we get a lot more insight into how deeply Hannah’s death has affected Clay, especially since their friendship was much closer in the show than in the book. Clay struggles with the idea that he missed all of the signs that something was wrong with Hannah, and seems to have a much stronger sense of justice, taking it upon himself to avenge Hannah’s death.
The variety of characters who were Hannah’s 13 reasons were also a diverse bunch of people who also got a lot more backstory in the series. In the book, most of these people are little more than just names and specific episodes involving Hannah, whereas the series makes them a bit more human. It is here where the series gains a lot of it’s impact, in that it shows that everyone’s lives are much more complex than we may know. We have a character living in an abusive household, a character who is in the closet and afraid to come out, an arrogant jock who expects to get everything he wants, and many more. We also have the full range of possible reactions to Hannah’s death. Some characters are pretty dismissive, claiming that it doesn’t matter what they did because she’s dead anyway. Others refuse to acknowledge that they have done anything wrong, and one young man who seems to feel genuine remorse for his actions even though his was a relatively minor incident compared to others. I enjoyed seeing how the characters came to life on the screen, and they all felt very real. I was genuinely creeped out by Bryce!
I have to give a special mention to Tony, a character who was given a much larger role on the Netflix series. Tony is a young man who was entrusted with the second copy of Hannah’s tapes, and who attempts to make sure they make it through all the people named as per Hannah’s instructions. Christian Navarro was a brilliant choice for this role. I have never seen him in anything before, but from his first scenes, I was drawn into his character and I loved how they expanded his role from such a minor one in the book. He really contributed to the creepy, mysterious atmosphere of the show.
Unfortunately, the other added/expanded character in the book was a bit of a disappointment for me. Before watching the series, I’d heard a lot about how they had added a new character named Jeff, a boy that Clay tutored who is later killed in a car accident. Although the book mentions a boy from the school dying in a car accident, no one is ever named. In the series, Jeff interacts several times with Clay in the early episodes, and they are decent friends throughout. However, I found his inclusion a bit jarring since I had read the book just before watching, so I was thrown off by who he was supposed to be, and did not think he added much to the story. Other character changes were just as hit-or-miss. For example, why was Jenny’s name changed to Sheri? There was no reason for this. Courtney’s plot was one that was most heavily changed to include an LGBT angle, but it seemed mostly unnecessary. I would have been fine if they had stuck to the original plot for her.
This is always the hardest aspect for me to comment on since I don’t often remember the music and cinematography after the show is over. I remember noting that the music fit the episodes quite well while I was watching. However, in this case, I think some of the visuals are quite memorable — especially the haunting hot tub scene between Bryce and Hannah. The series overall captured the stark, eerie tone of the story very well.
A Note About All the Controversy
Just to wrap up, I was a bit surprised to find out how much controversy there was surrounding this series. This series has been criticized for glamourizing suicide and presenting it is as not only an option, but even a positive one. People have complained that Hannah fails to take any responsibility for her life, and instead blamed everything on others. People have claimed that her suicide and the amount of attention she gets afterwards will give the message that suicide is a viable way to get revenge on or attention from people who have wronged you. While I agree that the idea of blaming others for your own actions can be problematic, I think that misses the point of the book and the series. The story tries to show how what we do and say to others can have a much stronger impact on others. That is not to say that people shouldn’t take responsibility for themselves — they absolutely should, and they should not be afraid to seek help.
I think any reader or watcher of any book, movie, or TV series should be able to think critically about what they are consuming. Even if it were the case that this story glamourizes suicide, it is up to the person reading or watching to take it for what it is — a work of fiction about people who are not real. Suicide worked out a certain way in Hannah’s case, because that was specific to Hannah’s life and circumstances. It does not mean it would be the same for everyone else. I think people reading or watching should be capable of separating themselves from the story.
Plot – 8/10
Characters – 10/10
Visuals/Music – 9/10
Overall – 9/10