Hmm, well this is interesting from my perspective; usually when I blog I have a definite message or thought that I want to convey but with this… I want to draw attention to it and hopefully, encourage others to watch/read the series/book, but I’m not sure what I actually want to say in this blog. I suppose I’m just trying to stir up a conversation concerning the topics raised in both the book and drama, so forgive me if I get a little side-tracked at points, I’ll try to stay as concise and eloquent as I can… That said, let us dive into it!
(Oh, spoilers, duh! And, trigger-warning, this article discusses rape and teen suicide.)
So, yeah! TH1RTEEN R3ASONS WHY, for those of you who don’t know, is the new, highly acclaimed, Netflix original series, based on the 2007 novel of the same name by Jay Asher. I mean, personally I read the book… probably around 3/4 years ago and, honestly it kinda blew my mind. So I was really both looking forward to and dreading seeing this adaptation: looking forward to it, cause obviously, I loved the book but dreading it because, in my experience, book-to-screen translations are NEVER quite as good as the originals. How happy I was to be firmly proven wrong! Although having said that, this series (thouugh devoid of anything particularly ‘horrific’, bar Hannah’s final scene) is one of the most heart-wrenching, and scarily real, things I’ve ever seen.
So, at this point, I should probably give you a brief overview of the plot. Basically, an average teenage guy, Clay Jensen, arrives home from school to find a box of tapes which has been delivered to him. Upon listening, he realises that they have been recorded by a classmate called Hannah Baker who recently committed suicide. As per Hannah’s instructions, Clay listens to all 13 tapes which detail her reasons for her suicide, before passing the box onto the next appointed recipient.
Obviously, I’m just outlining the bare bones of the story there, I’d highly suggest either reading the book or watching the series for the full emotional impact! Having said that, I’ll add that the book isn’t very long, despite the depth of its message, it’s around 300 pages. As you can then imagine, I was pretty intrigued to find that the series includes 13 separate episodes, which approximate 50 minutes in length each.
Obviously, this meant that a lot had been added, which I personally felt was most probably a good thing, as the book suffers from what I like to call ‘The Hunger Games conundrum’. Now, this conundrum is actually quite a common amoungst book-to-film adaptations, because obviously within a book (even the most widely acclaimed ones) the plotline can get away with being fairly flimsy or underdeveloped as long as the writer has enough flair to progress the story in other ways: films cannot get away with this, the camera becomes an x-ray showing a bad plotline up for what it is without mercy.
Now whilst the plotline to this book is not necessarily ‘flimsy’ it does have a problem that anyone who’s read The Hunger Games will remember well, in that, most of the action/story-progression takes place in the main protagonists head. This then creates a problem when trying to portray what is essentially mental trauma and, at times quite complex, emotions through a visual medium. Even the best actors would struggle! This is then coupled together with the fact that, whilst many characters are mentioned within the book, only Clay and Hannah are really expanded upon, ultimately making it a difficult book to adapt…
So it’s most probably for this reason then that Netflix, chose to expand the length of Clay’s run-through of the tapes from one evening to two weeks, and further to shift the focus slightly from the memories of Hannah and, the subsequent effect of her various revelations on Clay, onto the effect that her tapes have had so far on the lives of those unlucky enough to receive them. And the subsequent ripple effect that Hannah’s suicide has had on her parents, the school, and wider school community. Whilst I was unsure of this approach at first, mainly as I was afraid that it would take away from the impact of Hannah’s story, I actually think it adds to it.
You see, as an older reader (the book’s aimed at ‘young adults’, so around 13 to, what, 16 year-olds, whereas I was about 22/23 when I first read it) I understood Hannah’s POV immediately. Particularly after reflecting on my own teens and recalling painfully the feeling that anything bad which happens in your life at that time is literally the worst thing ever to happen to anyone at any point ever! However a friend of mine who read the book felt that Hannah was ‘making a fuss’ about quite minor things.
Now whilst I didn’t agree (for the aformentioned reasons) I could see her point, if you’re unable to remember the trauma of the teen years (and lets face it: they are traumatic) or else, unable to empathise for whatever reason then Hannah’s reasoning seems incredibly feeble. However I felt that the programme did a good job of expanding upon, and highlighting, her problems. This is where the benefit of television comes into play, because, whilst television/film may not be a great way to highlight subtle emotions, it is a fantastic forum for showing repercussions in a very blunted kind of way.
For example, there’s a scene in the second or third episode I believe, wherein Hannah has just been voted ‘best ass in freshman class’ by some stupid list or other going around the school. Now, in both the book and series, the effect of this list escelates from snide comments and unwelcome stares in the hall to, what is effectively, sexual molestation in a liquor store. I cannot express how much more of an impact watching that scene unfold has, in comparison to reading it. To watch things unfold and progress in a way that felt very natural and realistic was extremely emotive, and I felt a sense of anger on Hannah’s behalf which I didn’t feel when reading the book; not because it wasn’t well written but because the expression of shock and portrayal of humiliation given by the actress is one of the most powerful I have seen for a while.
(At this point can I just give a round of applause to all of the actors, truly, bravo!) Not only is this scene incredibly emotive, but it truly highlights Hannah’s loss of control of the situation, a situation which she never asked for in the first place and which she, as a teenager, is completely inadept to handle.
This is where we come to the real heart of the issue, you see, one of my friends main problems with the book was that Hannah didn’t turn to one of the many people around her, who would have actually cared, had she opened up to them.
The fact is Hannah is a teenager. The average teenager doesn’t feel able to open up to their parents/guardians/teachers because, firstly, at that stage in a persons life, we are generally lacking in the skills to adequately express our emotions, and secondly adults have a tendency to minimise teenage problems as being… well, just that. Which, lets face it, 9 times out of 10 they are. But then, going back to what I said before, any problem faced by a teenager is, from their perspective, ten times more desperate, simply because of the way a teenage mind processes information: and this was Hannah’s problem. She felt unable to open up to anyone, as everyone seemed to shut her down, making her feel worthless to the point where she felt like her life was an inconvenience to those around her.
Actually one point from the book, which I don’t feel was portrayed quite right in the series, is after Hannah’s raped (oh yeah, that happens… obviously we don’t see anything, but it’s still one of the most uncomfortable scenes to watch) she admits on tape that she’s not sure that it counts as rape as she didn’t actually say the word ‘no’. To me, this scene really outlined how far Hannah’s feeling of self-worth had fallen, as it’s obvious that what happened was rape, yet she questioned it because her self-esteem had been so damaged that she no longer felt human. But I think the series kind of dumbed-down the message a bit, if you like, by having Hannah not doubt the issue at all, she knew she’d been raped, she just didn’t care enough to go to the police.
Can you see now why I say this series is one of the hardest things I’ve ever watched; it almost felt wrong to be entertained by, what was essentially, watching someone else’s life implode! Overall though, I really enjoyed this series and further I think Jay Asher, Selena Gomez (producer) and the Netflix team should be applauded for their realistic portrayal of such difficult subjects.
If you have any thoughts, please let me know in the comments below…