Feels like: Hanging out at the park at night with that guy from your fourth period chemistry class
Song pairing: Dancing on My Own by Robyn; Love Will Tear Us Apart (covered)by Fall Out Boy
I have a lot of feelings about Th1rteen R3asons Why by Jay Asher, and the Netflix series adapted from the book. I consciously kept most of my feelings academic and focused on how Asher presents the characters, his writing style, and the way the makers of the show adapted the book to screen. I did this because otherwise I would have let my brain run away, possibly into a bottle like the character Jessica does as her reality comes crashing down on her in the second half of the 13-episode show.
As I was telling someone earlier this week, I was extremely apprehensive about watching the show. It came with so many trigger warnings: sexual assault, rape, and suicide being the main ones. “Don’t watch this show if you have depression,” multiple pop culture sites warned me. “Oh my god, shit just got real!” old friends posted on Facebook. Those same sites, and people, told me that while it was really intense, the show was very well-made and worth spending 13 hours watching. Still, because I’m not 100% okay 100% of the time, especially in the last year or so, I avoided it since its release on March 31st until a few days ago.
The universe presented this book and show to me at exactly the right time. I am between librarian jobs and recovering from a surgical procedure. I’ve been in that weird in-between spot where I feel fine, but the doctor said I have to be quiet so I am BORED. One day last week I decided I had to have the book Th1rteen R3asons Why, and tracked down a paperback copy at Barnes and Noble after several unsuccessful attempts at Target (where it is $3 cheaper). I read the book in a few hours; 180 pages the first night, and the remaining 108 the next morning.
In Th1rteen R3asons Why, the main character Clay listens to 13 audiotapes in a single night. The tapes were recorded a couple of weeks prior by a classmate who committed suicide. Instead of leaving a note, Hannah Baker leaves audio recordings explaining the thirteen reasons, each assigned to a person, some repeated, whom she feels are partially responsible for bringing her to that point. During the course of the narrative we meet Hannah’s ex-friends, a group of popular and seemingly untouchable jocks, a yearbook photographer with a peeping habit, and several other characters who are effectively three-dimensional characters mirroring everyone’s high school classmates.
Asher does an incredible job of two things with his writing. First, he moves the narrative along as quickly as Clay listens to the tapes. You can read it all in a night, just like Clay listens to the tapes in a night. You move between locations on Hannah’s map in real time. You feel the drama and the suspense of changing tapes in the walkman, a purposely vintage touch that Asher explains in an interview at the back of a newer paperback edition: “With technology changing so fast, it’s impossible for a present-day novel to stay current if your characters use the most up-to-date material…When something is out-of-date but the characters know it, the book is suddenly up-to-date.”
Second, he beautifully tells Hannah’s story exclusively from Hannah’s perspective. By framing the entire story in only one night, we hear exactly what she wants to tell. No less, no more, except Clay’s thoughts and reactions to what she says. Even though Clay cares, wishes he could change the outcome he knows is coming, cries, screams, and feels disgusted, our main character is not controlling the story. The dead girl is. By the end, there is no question about why she did what she did, because we have just heard her entire truth. “No return engagements. No encore. And this time, absolutely no requests” (p. 7). There’s no time for any of these things when Clay is listening to the tapes, which is exactly how Hannah wanted it. And here is my first complaint about the Netflix adaptation: there are too many other main characters! Because each tape is given an hour instead of a few pages, the writers had to flesh out Hannah’s story by showing us the backgrounds, families, and personal lives of all the people she’s talking about. Clay’s mom is a lawyer defending the school against a lawsuit brought about by Hannah’s parents. Justin Foley’s mom is a neglectful drug addict with a series of abusive, deadbeat boyfriends. Jessica Davis’ father is a soldier with high expectations for her achievement. Courtney Crimson has two gay dads, but is terrified to come out as gay herself. These are all incredibly interesting stories and I would love to watch them… But not on this show. Th1rteen R3asons Why is about Hannah, and the way she saw these people. She tells the truth because she’s lost everything, and since the story is about her, that version of the truth is the most important one.
I want to briefly address the end of the book/show. They end the same way, with Clay reconnecting to an old friend who is considered an outcast. In the book, Skye is a few years older than Clay and not a huge character, though the idea of her represents everyone who might be feeling alone in their high school universe. In the show, Skye is in almost every episode, waiting on Clay in the coffee shop and sharing several classes with him at school. Reflecting on, and finally understanding, what he could have done to help Hannah feel a connection to someone else and maybe not kill herself, Clay approaches Skye and rekindles their friendship. Before this encounter, the show deviates from the plot of the book pretty severely. The principal lets the neglectful counselor know that an ex-friend of Hannah’s has shot himself in the head and is in critical condition at the hospital. Another subject of a tape is seen rearranging a secret gun collection in his bedroom. Hannah’s mom clutches a flash drive containing audio files of the tapes while listening to student depositions for a lawsuit that is completely absent from the book. Basically, they’ve done what all good TV writers do: left the series open for another season in case the first one is well-received. As a bibliophile, this concerns me. The case of Th1rteen R3asons Why is one of the only times anyone will hear me say, “Turning it into an elongated TV series where we could see every detail was fine, but the whole story could have been told in a two hour movie.” I found myself craving that same succinct storytelling, Hannah’s point of view, as I did while reading the book. It took me three days to get through the show. I wanted it to fly by and leave me breathless, the way the novel did.
And one last note, about that scene. I want to tell you why, as someone who has experienced depression and suicidal thoughts, I was not triggered by the suicide scene. Contrary to what the pop culture sites are all saying, the show does not glorify suicide. You watch Hannah slit her wrists with brand new razor blades. You hear the sound of them ripping through her skin, and she does not look peaceful. She whimpers and shows her pain, crying and beginning to hyperventilate before the blood loss forces her body to slow down. Minutes later her mother discovers the body and is immediately, tragically trapped between denial that her daughter is dead and trying to get someone (her husband, paramedics, anyone) to help her fix it. Watching this scene made my toes curl and my face contort. It’s not the kind of thing that makes you want to do what the character on the screen is doing.
Also regarding the suicide itself, I am pretty bothered by the fact that Hannah’s method was altered. In the book, she takes a handful of pills. I feel that this method is closer to Hannah’s character because all she wants is to be out of pain. Slitting her wrists causes her a great deal more pain. Like showing us the inside of her classmates’ lives, I think this was done because shows need more drama.
So what’s the bottom line? I loved the book, and I liked the show, mostly for reasons of pacing and too much character development (another phrase I never thought I’d hear myself say). I was not triggered by the assaults or self harm depicted in the show, but some people might be. As a film adaptation, I’m equal parts frustrated and impressed. It was much better than a lot of screen adaptations out there, but could have been a little more Hannah-centric in order to maintain the feel of the book. Don’t be deterred by the fact that it’s a “teen” book; it’s a wonderful, quick read that will stay with you long after it’s returned to the library or tucked away on your shelf.
Now, why would a dead girl lie? Hey! That sounds like a joke. Why would a dead girl lie? Answer: Because she can’t stand up. Is this some kind of twisted suicide note?
Go ahead. Laugh.
Oh well. I thought it was funny. (p. 8)
“I don’t know what’s going on with you,” the man says from across the counter, “but I’m not taking your money.” He blows into a straw and pinches both ends shut. I shake my head and reach back for my wallet. “No, I’ll pay.”
He winds the straw tighter and tighter. “I’m serious. It was only a milkshake. And like I said, I don’t know what’s going on, and I don’t know how I can help, but something’s clearly gone wrong in your life, so I want you to keep your money.” His eyes search mine, and I know he means it. (p. 192-193).
Everything…affects everything. (p. 201)
I was hoping you’d tell me to stop again. To stop leaving. (p. 216)
Jeselyn is a children and teen librarian in Mesa, AZ and a lifelong passionate reader and writer.