Thirteen Reasons why

13 Reasons Why: Problematic Text to Promising Adaptation

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Amanda Shepard

Writer. Coffee addict. Cat lover. Passionate about all things YA and Marvel.

Major Spoilers Ahead!

The latest book-to-television adaptation in the young adult world is Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher—a book that has been highly acclaimed in the young adult community, and is celebrating its tenth anniversary.

thirteen reasons whyThe popularity of young adult literature has grown exponentially in the last forty years; in fact, many even consider this the second golden age of young adult literature, with the first in the 1970s. This has translated in the adaptation of young adult books to the screen, both in television and in movies. Some young adult books have movie deals even before they’re published, like The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas. These adaptations have placed young adult literature in the spotlight now more than ever.

Netflix released the first season on March 31st, and shows promise in being renewed for a second season. The show has mostly received positive reviews, with critics praising the performance of the actors, the visual direction, and the fact that the show doesn’t shy away from difficult topics.

Thirteen Reasons Why chronicles the suicide of Hannah Baker, who left behind a series of tapes outlining the reasons that lead up to her suicide. Readers are brought into the story with Clay Jensen, the tenth student (eleventh in the series) to receive the tapes from Hannah. We’re taken through the tapes as Clay listens to them, drawn into the story by the mystery of why Clay is on the tapes.

Thirteen Reasons Why was Problematic Source Material

When it was first published in 2007, Thirteen Reasons Why was received positively by the young adult community, even being nominated to the Best Books for Young Adults list by the Young Adult Library Services Association.

However, despite its critical acclaim, the book is problematic in the way it deals with teen depression, suicide and bullying. Much of the tension in the book is drawn from Clay Jensen trying to figure out why he’s on the tapes in the first place, as he didn’t contribute to the bullying and rumors that followed Hannah. The story becomes anti-climactic when Hannah reveals that Clay is the only one who doesn’t really belong on the tapes—he’s just needed to tell the complete story. Clay is resolved of all guilt. Story solved, right?

Thirteen Reasons Why
Clay listening to the tapes.

Not exactly. The resolution of the novel is one of the most problematic aspects of the story as a whole. Clay is cast in the book as the “nice guy,” and Hannah’s reasons for suicide are portrayed as overly dramatic and trivial. Much of this is due to many of the characters lacking three-dimensionality, as the book focuses more on Hannah’s desire to seek revenge on those who have wronged her instead of focusing on the factors that contributed to her suicide. The lack of deep, well-rounded characters makes the book fall flat, not quite achieving its original goal: to bring awareness to teen suicide and bullying.

How Does the Television Adaptation Stack Up?

The Netflix adaptation is able to take its problematic source material and delve deeper into the issues from the book, mostly through expanding upon the characters. Instead of being the stereotypical nice guy, Clay Jensen is the socially awkward outsider who struggles with anxiety issues. Adding dimensionality to the characters creates a more compelling storyline, one that is more sensitive to its subject matter.

This is what I liked best about the Netflix adaptation. Making the characters more complex means that the issues that Hannah was dealing with in high school seem less trivial than they do in the book. In the book, Hannah comes across as immature and whiny, her tapes lashing out at the toxic community that she found herself a part of.

Thirteen Reasons Why
Hannah and Clay. PHOTO CREDIT
Beth Dubber/Netflix

In the show, Hannah is much more developed, and instead of a petty form of revenge, her tapes bring us to the core idea behind the show: everything affects everything. Hannah’s tapes show that sometimes, we’re not aware of how our actions are affecting other people, and it is important to take responsibility for how those actions may have affected someone negatively, even if it wasn’t obvious at the time. The show goes in this direction, whereas the book squarely places the blame on Hannah.

Rape Culture and Sexual Assault

This is another area the book lightly touches on through the rumors that follow Hannah around at school. In the book, Clay simply listens to the tapes, and those responsible for the rape are let off the hook. Clay releases the tapes and that’s the end of it.

Again, the show takes this much further. Hannah’s story starts with the bullying and rumors that are depicted in the book, but spiral into something much darker and initiate important discussions within the story. In the show, Clay takes definitive actions in an attempt to bring justice to Hannah and Jessica, both girls who were raped within the story, by taping a confession from their rapist.

While this is a step above what happened in the book, Clay taking action for Hannah still reveals the problem with rape culture in our society, as the intervention of a boy is needed in order for girl’s rape to be believable. At one point, Hannah went to a school counselor and told him about the assault and her suicidal thoughts. He didn’t take her seriously at the time; she’s still seen as being whiny and trivial, told to just “move on.” In fact, the counselor doesn’t take her seriously until after her death and Clay is able to bring him proof that the assault happened. We’re still left without resolution by the end of the show, as we don’t know whether the rapist is ever held responsible for his actions. Perhaps the show will expand upon this storyline in season 2.

The interactions between the counselor and Clay and Hannah show how society views sexual assault: women aren’t taken seriously. Instead of placing the blame on the man who committed this action, women are forced to take the blame. What were they wearing? Were they drinking? Maybe they were “asking for it.” The counselor depicts this when he asks Hannah if the sex was maybe something that she wanted, but didn’t want to admit to. Hannah reached out for help, and society failed her. And the fact that Clay is the one with the ability to right those wrongs speaks volumes about the power of gender in relation to sexual assault.

For those thinking about watching the show, it should be noted that rape and sexual assault are graphically depicted several times within the show, with trigger warnings being issued at the beginning of these episodes. Hannah’s suicide is depicted in the last episode, which is also preceded by a trigger warning.

A Strong Adaptation of a Mediocre Text

Though the show is not without its flaws—certain story lines become repetitive, and the pacing drags in the middle of the season—Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why drastically expands upon its source material. Though uncomfortable at times, this is what makes the show all the more powerful and will make viewers think critically about the way we deal with sexual assault and suicide.