Fans of Jay Asher’s 2007 bestselling young-adult novel Thirteen Reasons Why, like devoted fans of any beloved book or book series, might be skeptical of Netflix’s new adaptation (premiering March 31). Does it honor the spirit of the book? Does it omit significant storylines or characters from the book? Does it change the ending of the book?
In short: yes, no, and no. The spirit, the tone, and the purpose of the book’s story — which unfolds the reasons why high schooler Hannah Baker committed suicide, via a set of cassette tapes she recorded and arranged to have delivered to some of her classmates after her death — are intact through the series. It’s at times gut-wrenching and illuminating and funny and shocking and profoundly sad, but, like the book, ends on a hopeful note.
Why the series 13 Reasons Why really shines, making it an equally terrific but different experience from reading the book, is the fact that it doesn’t edit down the book’s storylines or characters; it expands them. Hannah’s classmate and friend Clay Jensen, whose listening to the tapes helps unwind the mystery of what led Hannah to such a desperate place, is the narrator of the story in Asher’s novel, making his and Hannah’s the two main points of view from which we learn about this complicated tale. The series — which expands the book’s one-night timeline to roughly two weeks — brings in every classmate and teacher who factored into Hannah’s downward spiral (and therefore, the tapes), and sheds light on their lives too.
Without spoiling all the specifics, Hannah’s tapes begin with a simple kiss between her and classmate Justin. It’s a special moment for her: a kiss from her crush. Justin turns it into something more when he tells his jock buddies about it, and Hannah quickly gets labeled as the school slut. A list ranking the school’s females by their body parts — Hannah’s on it — only adds to her reputation, as do attempts by other boys, all friends of Justin, to take advantage of what they believe to be true about dating Hannah. Things turn more serious with multiple sexual assaults, friendship betrayals, and a stunning shirking of duty by the school’s counselor.
Written by Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award winner Brian Yorkey, and produced by Selena Gomez and Oscar winner Tom McCarthy, the series doesn’t make excuses for any of the characters, including Clay, who makes some missteps in his relationship with Hannah, and Hannah herself, who is haunted by her role in a brutal violation of her former best friend.
But viewers get to spend time with Justin, and at least understand the motivation, the why, of what leads to his misplaced loyalty to his friend Bryce. We see the pressures on Hannah’s ex-best friend Jessica, whose strict father demands perfection. We get to know Alex, Hannah’s former friend who created the objectifying list and who is among those most haunted by his treatment of her. Hannah’s death leads him on a downward spiral of his own, especially after his alpha-male father expresses pride in Alex only after he gets into a bloody fight at school. Mr. Porter, the school counselor Hannah sought help from before making the decision that life wasn’t going to get better, was juggling his job, worries about job security, and the pressures of new fatherhood.
Then there are Hannah’s parents, heartbroken, angry, and demanding answers about her suicide, who are also local pharmacy owners trying — and failing — to compete with a big chain store. Their financial woes have led Hannah to suggest they cash out her college funds to help keep the business and the family afloat, and their understandable preoccupation with their store leaves them with overwhelming guilt after she dies.
All these characters, and their connections to each other as well as Hannah, are fleshed out in deeper, satisfying ways in the series’ 13 episodes (each installment focuses on one tape). Along with spot-on casting, that makes 13 Reasons Why a must-see visual companion for Asher’s novel.
Australian newcomer Katherine Langford — this is her first screen role — is stunningly vulnerable as Hannah, making her likable and honest, conveying all the angst and high drama of being a teenage girl in a social media world, without turning Hannah into a clichéd Afterschool Special character. You know her ending from the beginning, but that doesn’t stop you from hoping she’ll get a different one with every offense, big and small, she wearily tries to work her way through.
Dylan Minnette’s Clay is part of Hannah’s story in a way that is revealed on one of her tapes, and after her death as one of the people she chooses to listen to all the cassettes. It’s hinted that shy Clay has had some emotional fragility in his recent, pre-Hannah past, and becoming the keeper of the tapes and all the trauma they reveal to him leaves him angry, bitter, and increasingly determined that everyone who harmed Hannah be made to own up to what they did to her. Minnette (Scandal, Lost, and Awake) infuses Clay with charm, calm, and an old-soul understanding. His Clay is that guy in high school every girl should want to date, but who only those who are equally above the usual high school pursuit of popularity will see as a real catch.
Parenthood alum Miles Heizer as Alex, Kate Walsh and Brian D’Arcy James as Hannah’s parents, and Derek Luke as Mr. Porter are also scene-stealers among the stellar cast.
And speaking of the 13 Reasons Why adults, an alternate angle for this piece could have been, “13 Reasons Why: No, It’s Not Just for a Young Adult Audience.” The bullying, the angst, and the lack of understanding that there is a world outside and way beyond high school might suggest the series is aimed solely at teens, but both in quality and scope, 13 Reasons Why is an instant classic that transcends being pigeonholed into such a narrow demographic box.
One of the book’s strongest themes, potently carried over throughout the series, is summarized when Hannah says on one of the tapes, “Everything affects everything.”
“You don’t know what went on in the rest of my life. At home. Even at school. You don’t know what goes on in anyone’s life but your own. And when you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re not messing with just that part. Unfortunately, you can’t be that precise and selective,” she says. “When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything affects everything.”
Anyone, regardless of age, who’s ever been vulnerable enough to share an opinion, a photo, or a memory on social media knows the kinds of potentially harsh, gut-punch comments you leave yourself open to, and the power those comments can wield over you.
13 Reasons Why is a compelling, entertaining, always relevant, all-ages-appropriate reminder to be kind, to listen, and to consider the effect your words can have before you say them or hit the send button.
‘13 Reasons Why’ premieres March 31 on Netflix.
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