When “13 Reasons Why” appeared on Netflix I was intrigued. The premise of the programme – that a girl who committed suicide recorded 13 tapes of what led her to it – sounded extremely unique. From the first episode I was hooked and I binge watched the entire series as quickly as I could, desperate to get to the end.
While I may have devoured each episode I must say “13 Reasons Why” is extremely hard to watch. This is not a feel good series. There is no happy ending where everything turns out alright. A girl is dead. She felt that her only choice was to take her own life. What we are seeing are the reasons that led her to take that decision. The things that happened that led her to a place where she believed her only choice in life was to end it all. And that is extremely difficult to watch.
After I watched the show I found out that it was based on a book written by Jay Asher of the same title. So for the past few weeks I have been on the reservation list at my local library to read this book. Last week I managed to get my hands on it and this weekend I read it cover to cover.
The book is different to the show. The book is in many ways much simpler. The main character, Clay Jensen, receives a package of 13 tapes. When he plays the first tape the voice he hears is Hannah Baker. Hannah has committed suicide and these tapes are her legacy. The reasons that led her to that final choice. In the book Clay listens to these tapes in one night and runs through a myriad of emotions as he comes to learn who Hannah Baker was. Past tense. And when he finishes he does what Hannah wants, he passes the tapes on. He is also changed forever by what he hears. That change makes him reach out to some he thinks is hurting in a way he couldn’t for Hannah.
The series takes the book and embellishes it. Clay listens to the tapes over a series of days. The people who are also on the tapes confront him and try to influence him. Hannah’s parents are suing the school as failing to protect Hannah from bullying. We learn a lot more about the characters on the tapes through this extended time line. Clay tries to get justice for Hannah.
Overall the series is fantastic. It shows you how all the things that happen to a person, both good and bad, have a profound effect on that person and others. A small act to you can make a big difference to someone else. They can be a rope to save someone or for them to hang themselves with. It shows you how honesty, responsibility and accountability are paramount. How do you want to live your life?
On the other hand, in its simplicity the book has a more profound effect. The characters are simpler. Hannah is more complex. The final act that pushes her to take her life in the series, it happens and Hannah fights against it. In the book she lets it happen. Because she’s already decided that she is nothing but bad. She needed that final act to completely destroy herself. She needs to be destroyed. This is her final step towards suicide. This doesn’t come across in the series.
Hannah made those tapes so the people who affected her will listen and know what they did. She also made them in the hope that her final act could make a positive change on the world. And for Clay it did. He is reserved and shy but after the tapes reaches out to someone else in need. That’s how the book ends. He passes on the tapes and let’s Hannah change him for the better.
The other aspect of the series is the need to provide some justice for Hannah. Clay records a confession of the final act that happened to Hannah. He influences the holder of the backup set of tapes to give them to Hannah’s parents. Clay also influence one of the other characters to admit to a wrong. We can get a feeling of some wrongs being righted.
But I don’t feel like that is the point of the book. Hannah experiences things we may all experience in life. Rumours, gossip, false friends, lack of responsibility, a crime she could have stopped. Everything the builds up over several years of school. The guilt of things she could have changed crush her. The unfairness of a bad reputation she hasn’t earned follows her and causes boys to feel that have a right to treat her in a certain way. Betrayal by people she thought were friends, or could be friends. Some things are small, some things are big. But everything together, building up, crushing her leads Hannah to the decision that ending her life is the only way to change things. And that ultimately, this was her decision.
The book conveys this beautifully and painfully. It isn’t a story of getting Hannah justice. It’s a story about understanding people and what leads them to make decisions in their lives. That’s what I think 13 Reasons Why is about. The series, while very good and I thoroughly recommend you watch, I think ends up being about justice for Hannah. About exposing the truth of her death. Whereas the book is about understanding the impact of the choices you make. That ultimately you can be a light in the darkness or be a part of it.
Have you read or watch 13 Reasons Why? Let me know your thoughts below!
Get the book here: