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13 Reasons Why: The Book, the Series, the Issues

13 Reasons Why: The Book, the Series, the Issues

By Mir Kamin

For many parents out there, the current buzz surrounding 13 Reasons Why is causing something of an unexpected crisis, as it’s unusual for a new TV series to generate this much chatter and angst, this quickly. I’m hearing plenty of folks worried that it’s “inappropriate for teenagers” or that it glorifies violence and/or bullying. I get the worry and some of it is, of course, well-founded. And some of it might be missing the point entirely.

If you’ve somehow missed a basic plot summary in the midst of all the current hoopla, 13 Reasons Why refers to the 13 reasons high school junior Hannah Baker leaves behind as an explanation for her suicide—before killing herself, she makes a series of audio tapes intended for the people involved in the reasons. In the book, we “hear” the tapes and follow the story as it unfolds to Hannah’s classmate, Clay Jensen, but in the show our view is more global and includes more characters. In both, the reader/viewer is essentially privy to an emotional post-mortem and the ripple effects it has on Hannah’s world now that she’s gone.

I sat down with my 19-year-old this weekend to talk about it, because I didn’t feel like I could do this topic justice without her perspective. You see, 13 Reasons Why has been one of her favorite books since she first read it while she was still in middle school. In fact, she loved it so much, she insisted that I read it, too—something that happens quite a bit these days, but didn’t happen all that often, back then. Jay Asher’s novel is haunting and poignant and yes, angsty and harsh, in places, but it’s a very different creature than the Netflix series. My daughter had been dying to see the book come to life, and had plenty of opinions after she’d watched.

We also asked longtime educator (and former classroom teacher and guidance counselor) Kelly Hurst to share her thoughts from her professional and personal (she’s a mom) views, here. Kelly, an adolescent teen whisperer, has strong opinions about the ways in which the series sensationalized the book. Read along, because she’s concerned that teens who may not be ready for this mature content will miss out on getting healthy guidance so she aims to inform parents who may not be aware of this series and its growing popularity. Her take is also colored by the fact that schools will be dealing with students who are reading or watching without supervision and of the conversations that educators may not be ready for if they don’t have their fingers on the pulse of their student population. That last thing we need is to be is caught unawares like Hannah’s school educators so obviously were.

Be forewarned that the following does contain plot spoilers, as well as graphic discussion of rape and suicide.

On which is the better vehicle for this story.

I could fill pages and pages with my daughter’s thoughts about why the book is superior to the Netflix series, and some of it is about changes the screenwriters made to the story (more on that in a bit), but the biggest complaint is likely one you’ve already seen from others reviewing/contrasting the two mediums. “The series is too long,” she said. “It’s just wayyyyyyyyy too long. I get that they wanted to have 13 episodes and each episode to be ‘full length’ or whatever, but it’s too much. The book isn’t even 300 pages; I think I read it in a few hours. This isn’t a story that needs to last 13 hours, and so of course a bunch of stuff got added to stretch it out, but I think that’s really obvious and it dilutes the message. And then there’s stuff they took out, too, which made no sense to me, because if you’re trying to make it longer, why not start with all of the details from the book? There’s such a cute comic relief/characterizing moment in the book, when Clay doesn’t show up on Hannah’s ‘o my dollar’ valentine match list, and it’s because he filled out his profile pretending to be Holden Caulfield. Why leave that out? I mean, there’s an interview with Jay Asher where he says he’s fine with the stuff they added and he feels the message is the same, and he’s the author so I guess maybe I shouldn’t disagree? But I disagree. The message is changed, plus it makes some parts of it so difficult to bear it then becomes about what’s appropriate and what’s triggering rather than the message of those scenes.”

Kelly’s (an educator) thoughts:  When the book made its reappearance on our library shelves at the middle school where I worked, I knew it would be something I’d eventually pick up because so many of the well-read students began carrying it around. I’m a longtime fan of YA fiction and try to stay on top of it so that I am aware of what the students might be discussing when they bring issues to my office so I read it in an evening. I agree that the series they produced is entirely too long and felt like a character study that could be better placed in another series. Mostly, I appreciated how they used such diverse characters who were Black or gay or bisexual or, honestly, just a normal adolescent trying to navigate the world. But, like most things, the book is better to tell this story. I think having Hannah, in the book, take pills and not describe that scene in detail was a benefit as well. I understand the use of actual audio tapes, however, so that part transitioned well.   

On the differences between reading the book and watching the Netflix series.

“I read the book when I was maybe 13,” my daughter said, “and I think that was fine. I mean, it’s heavy, so it’s definitely not for a ‘naive’ or easily bothered young teen. It spoke to me, as someone already struggling with mental health issues, but my whole friend group (mostly ‘regular’ kids) read it then, too, and we were all fine. No one was traumatized. It’s definitely dark; it’s not a happy book. I can see where it has the potential to inspire someone in a very dark place to see suicide as a solution—and it’s definitely full of triggering topics—but for a mature kid who knows their limits, I think reading it at 13+ is fine.”

When I asked if she felt the same about watching the series, her face changed. She spoke more slowly, clearly searching for the right words. “On the one hand, I think if you’ve read the book you’re aware of the triggers and watching the show should be okay, but it’s definitely harder to watch than to read, even aside from the changes the show producers made. And if you haven’t read the book, I’d say the very youngest appropriate age for watching the show is maybe 15-16, and even then I think parents should watch it with their teens. It’s just hard and there’s no trigger warning that can really prepare you for, for example, a scene that stays on a character’s face for a really long time while she’s being raped. People think that television today is already full of sex and violence and hard stuff and how much worse could this possibly be? This is worse. It’s important for parents to watch it with their teens, if they’re going to let their teens see it. There’s going to be things you’ll want to talk about.”

Although I had some ideas about why the show is more jarring than the book, I really wanted to hear my kid’s take on why she thinks that might be. She began nodding as soon as I asked if she thinks the show is more triggering. “Oh, definitely. I mean, in the book maybe it says ‘she cried and turned her face away,’ where in the show you have to actually watch her face. That scene is… they talk in Beyond the Reasons [this is a companion episode to the show that interviews the show’s creators/producers, and can also be found on Netflix, although it’s a separate listing from the series itself] about how it’s actually written in the script how that scene is ‘uncomfortably long’ on purpose, and there is just no way to prepare yourself for how horrible it is, how long it goes on, how you can just see the life draining out of her eyes. There’s no trigger warning that’s sufficient for that. There’s no trigger warning that’s going to make it easier to see a suicide on screen, not the usual on-screen version where someone is distraught and they pick up a weapon and the camera pans away, but where you stay with her and watch it. There’s ‘these are triggering topics for a given person’ and there’s ‘watching this thing is simply awful, full stop.'”

Kelly’s thoughts: This is where I put on my adolescent expert hat and say that what concerns me most about the series is that far more kids will watch it than will read it. There’s a certain nuance in the book that is missing from the series and so much of the visual parts will be hard for kids who think they’re mature but are not or who don’t have a supportive parent or adult with whom they can discuss it. A local suicide by a middle schooler here prompted the decorating of his locker (much like they did to Hannah’s locker) after he killed himself and the worst part of that fallout was overhearing another student say, “I wish people would care about me if I did this“. There is a certain glorification that can be unhealthy when not guided through the suicide of a child. If I’m being totally honest there is also something unhealthy about the theory that one has their “voice” heard even after death and that they get some sort of closure with being able to speak on their life, but I fear that it may prompt teens to emulate that with some use of technology. You can read about “copycat” suicide here and I think this may be helpful to anyone who works with teens to be aware of as they deal with what I can only call the fallout of this series.

On the functional story changes in the show that just didn’t make sense.

I’d already seen several reviews taking the creators of the series to task for having Clay’s character take something like two weeks to listen to the tapes rather than listening to them all at once. As soon as I brought that up, she laughed. “Yeah, that makes no sense. No kid is going to be like, ‘Oh, I’ll just take my time with these.’ They did it that way to make the show longer and give them more space for character arcs, but it was dumb. They also do the episodes out of order instead of chronologically, which I think was supposed to build suspense or whatever, but it really bothered me. The tapes are in order. The story is meant to be in the order of the tapes.”

What else bothered her? “In the show the other kids featured on the tapes kind of band together to try to keep Clay from listening, and I think that was supposed to make the story more interesting, somehow, but I think it was fine without all that. Plus Clay in the show is kind of a jerk, very different from Clay in the book. In the show, Clay retaliates against a lot of the people who hurt Hannah, and that’s supposed to feel like justice for her, I guess? But she’s already gone, and it just makes Clay into a much more confrontational guy than he was in the book, which then makes his role in the story make less sense, to me. Also I get why they added the whole storyline with Hannah’s parents, but it opens some questions about where they were when everything was happening, and also the way the book portrays the tapes, the whole point was that only the intended recipients would ever hear them, and in the show, you’re left believing the whole world is going to hear them. That’s not what Hannah wanted.”

Kelly’s thoughts: I nodded through all of what Mir shared here because I completely agree. Dragging out the listening of tapes is an obvious choice to drag out the series and that’s just lazy. That’s like taking a trilogy and forcing 4 movies out of it (I’m looking at you, LOTR). Considering that teens are bingeing on the Netflix series, how silly is it to suggest that Clay would take his time with the tapes? While there is plenty of blame to go around, I wish the producers would have done more with the mental health aspect of what Hannah was dealing with and with her parents’ lack of knowledge of what their daughter was going through. When they had Hannah lose the bank deposit it felt like they were suggesting that it led to her final decision to kill herself but her mental state was bad enough they didn’t need to add more drama. The thing I understand about adolescents is how they already feel so deeply and passionately about things. They assume that life will always be terrible and that, to adults, seemingly small things are already huge in their lives. I also think where Clay ended up on Hannah’s list didn’t need to be changed as well as some of the other characters. Having the lawsuit take center stage in the series didn’t resolve in any way, either, except to suggest there would be a second season. When Clay, in the book, walks the map of places where Hannah has him visit that was really good so having him bike everywhere seemed to just be a device for them to have his bike stolen and that wasn’t necessary. Finally, Alex shooting himself seemed, as the kids say, extra.

If someone wants to both read the book and watch the show, what’s the right way to do that?

When my kids were little, we had a rule that if you wanted to see a movie based on a book, you had to read the book first. I just think it’s rare that a movie does the book justice, anyway, plus it’s a great way to encourage reading. So I wasn’t surprised when my kiddo was emphatic that a newcomer to 13 Reasons should read the book first, though she did have some interesting points to add about why. “I mean, you should always read the book first” (a nod to our old rule, I think) “but in this case, with the book being relatively short and the series so long, I think if you watch the show first and then read the book, you’ll feel like the book is missing a bunch of stuff. But I also feel like the book is a poignant snapshot, a clear and fairly straightforward story with a bit of grace at the end (you can’t really call it a happy ending, because Hannah’s dead, but you know), whereas the show is a whole thing with multiple subplots and open threads and no good resolution. Again, I understand why they did that, and I can see the value in that, too, but it’s very different. Also if you want to figure out if the series is going to be ‘too much,’ reading the book is a good place to start if you’re on the fence about whether you can handle it.” Again, my kid is pretty tough, and she knew exactly what was going to happen in the series, and she stressed several times that nothing can really adequately prepare you for how disturbing it is to watch these renditions of rape and suicide. Please proceed with caution.

Kelly’s thoughts: Like Mir, our family rule is “read first, watch second” and sure, people will think the book is lacking because they added so much to the series. If teens don’t want to put the time in to reading this book first and all the important things they can discuss in book club or with friends or family, then watching it, again, is taking the easy route. What if they’re not ready for the heavy discussions presented in the book? Well, then they’re definitely not ready for multiple hours-long series that drag on for so many episodes. As a classroom teacher, I also encouraged students to feel free to give up on a book if it wasn’t speaking to them. It takes effort to read while watching is far more passive. I would highly suggest reading first and, if the story isn’t for you, don’t bother with the series. 

On how the book’s message is, perhaps, simpler.

“So my biggest complaint about the series is that they way overdeveloped Clay and Hannah’s relationship. They had a long-standing friendship in the script, and I get that in making something longer with more sub-plots that felt like a reasonable choice. But a big part of what makes the book interesting is that Clay barely knew Hannah; they had a moment, really, and the timing was wrong for them, which is interesting from a ‘what-if’ perspective, but it also means that Clay is really getting to know Hannah through the tapes after she’s gone. It’s a different dynamic entirely, and I also think it’s important to the message of the book, because what you’re learning as Clay listens to the tapes is that Hannah felt like she was all alone and no one noticed. Once you [in the series] bring in a supposed BFF who she suddenly cuts off (and don’t get me started on her parents, who are completely absent from the book), you start asking yourself why no one saw the signs, why someone didn’t intervene because it was clear she was in trouble. Watching the series, given the relationship developed between them on screen, I’m left feeling like Clay both should’ve realized Hannah was in trouble and that he should be a lot more traumatized by her death.”

What about the development of other characters and story threads in the series? “Again, the show is about everyone—you get backstories on all the characters, which makes them more real and humanizes them—and that can be seen as filling in crucial details, I guess, but I felt like it took away from Hannah’s story, and even took away from what Clay learned from it. In the book, Hannah struggled silently and alone, and once Clay understands what happened, he reaches out to another character (one who we barely know anything about) who may be in a similar position. We’re left feeling a bit hopeful. In the series, that character is Skye, and we know a lot more about her (and, in fact, basically dislike her because she’s depicted as kind of a jerk), and by the time Clay reaches out to her, it just feels so blatant, it’s not as impactful as the book.”

I was also curious about her feelings on the addition of a second suicide attempt in the series, because that’s not part of the book. “That was added because once a kid kills themselves, it raises the chances of another kid in their circle also attempting suicide. But it felt very Hollywood, very ‘here’s your dramatic teachable moment!’ instead of a logical part of the story, to me. And even the whole thing with Hannah’s parents suing felt like their attempt to get closure when really, in the book, it’s about closure for Hannah, not anyone else. In the book, on the back of the 7th tape, Hannah just says, very quietly, ‘Thank you.’ To me that felt important and real—there’s no justice for Hannah in the book, not really, because she’s gone. But that moment is sort of like her saying, ‘I got it all off my chest, someone will know the truth, and now I’m done with everything.’ Even though it’s terrible that she dies, that moment feels cathartic. The reader is left feeling like Hannah’s process of making the tapes helped her somehow. In the show, Hannah just seems angry to the very end, which is just so sad. It helped me as a reader to feel like she had some sort of relief at the end, however small, in telling her story (even given how depressing the end of her life was). Watching everyone else try to find that, instead, felt wrong.”

Kelly’s thoughts:  Using the way they drew out the lawsuit at the end I have to say they complicated things in ways the books did not. Sometimes these things are quite clear and it’s easy to see how many people missed (or ignored) Hannah’s pain but pointing to just one of the school’s teachers and administrators didn’t seem fair. That part gave me a knot in my stomach when I consider the times I might have missed some obvious clues that something was wrong with a student. It wouldn’t necessarily take Hannah cutting her hair (which happens out of order from the book to the series as well) for adults to take note of powerful and traumatic things going on in the lives of the students they see daily. Coming to school with the same outfit as the day before is a big giveaway (did they sleep at home? were they trying to rush out of the house and fell asleep in them?) but I know they were trying to put a fine point on it. When we didn’t see a resolution in the series to getting a confession of rape, that fell short in ways I don’t know they wanted to highlight. Rape culture must be addressed as well as the shaming parts of the end of the sexism rope that very often girls experience. Bottom line is that Hannah was hurting and there were several reasons for it so by the end of the series it felt like a pile on that actually underestimated the maturity of the audience. I dislike shows for teens that do that to them. 

On whether the violence in the show is gratuitous.

I could see her really struggling to explain her feelings, here. “On the one hand, I think it’s a really important perspective to show. I understand why they did it. It’s impactful to see this stuff, when so much media sort of glosses over the horrible realities, and these are topics we’re not talking about enough. People—teens—need to be shocked into some understanding and real discussion of these hard topics. I get that in many ways the show is overdramatic, but a point needs to be made.” I asked if that point was about coping with mental illness and/or trauma and she started and stopped a sentence about three times before finally settling on: “It’s not completely correct to say ‘this show isn’t made for people with mental illness,’ because it’s definitely about that, but it feels to me like the goal is to spread understanding to as many people as possible, particularly ones who aren’t directly affected, who really just don’t get it otherwise.” That made sense to me. “I mean,” she continued, “the rape scene? That scene isn’t for people who are survivors. They already know. That’s for the people who say they understand that sexual assault is traumatic, but who really don’t know. That scene is to make those people uncomfortable enough to get it.”

“You know,” she said at one point, “I feel like there are so many complaints about the violence in the show, people are sort of blowing it off. And I think that’s a shame. They’re addressing topics that aren’t addressed nearly enough with teens, and for some kids the series is going to feel more accessible than reading a book, and I think this is important stuff. I think the book does it better, but anything that gets real conversation going is good.”

Later, she added: “People need to be smart, here. If you’re a survivor and sexual assault is going to be triggering for you, believe the trigger warning. Even if you think that trigger warning doesn’t apply to you, understand that the reason everyone is up in arms here is because this is not run-of-the-mill shock-TV.”

Kelly’s thoughts: If the producers were going to add warnings then I’d recommend they go back and put it on a few other of the episodes. My biggest complaint was both changing the way Hannah committed suicide and the violent and gratuitous way in which they showed it. I cringed when I saw that knowing that it was such a how-to for anyone who might be hurting. Not that they wouldn’t already know how, but it showed so much that I was uncomfortable. I don’t think suicide is romantic or free from physical pain and I grappled with that. However, the powerful scene of her mother finding her was well done and realistic in that she continued to say aloud things like (I’m paraphrasing here) Hannah is ok. She’s fine. She’s not hurt when clearly she was. We could have used our imaginations as soon as she stole razor blades from her parents’ pharmacy store and then skipped to her mom finding her. Teens who are visual and tender will have a difficult time getting that image out of their heads and I think that was harmful to portray with such close-ups.

Final thoughts on 13 Reasons Why.

“I feel like the book is better than the series, but I see the value in the series, too. Watch it with your teenager if they want to watch it and you both agree they’re mature enough to handle it. Be prepared to have hard conversations. And if you watch it, be sure to also watch Beyond the Reasons [as mentioned above, this is the show’s creators’/producers’ companion piece, available on Netflix but listed separately from the main series], too—it will help you understand why the series made some of the more controversial choices it did. Don’t read all the outraged reactions online and decide that 13 Reasons Why is damaging for teenagers. Decide for yourself, and even if you think the series is inappropriate for your teen, maybe read the book together.”

Kelly’s final thoughts: I spent the better part of a week discussing this online with friends and educators and people with a vested interest in teens and adolescents and my advice was constant: if your child is experiencing some depression or harmful thoughts then you might want to skip this series and read the book together as a way of opening dialogue. A friend whose daughter is 11 said that all her friends watched it and she wanted to as well but, knowing this child, I know she is far too tender and empathic to deal with it right now. She can, like many others, wait until they’re ready or in a good place. Another friend said her (immature by her standards) child watched it over the weekend without her knowledge and that became a point of contention for them. Watch it first and decide for your family since you know your children best. But, have a plan in place for the fallout and strong feelings they may take away from this. 

Photo source: Netflix

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Mir Kamin
About the Author

Mir Kamin

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now ...

Mir Kamin began writing about her life online over a decade ago, back when she was a divorced mom trying to raise two regular little kids and figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up. Now her life looks very different than it did back then: Those little kids turned into anything-but-regular teenagers, she is remarried, and somehow she’s become one of those people who talks to her dogs in a high-pitched baby voice. Along the way she’s continued chronicling the everyday at Woulda Coulda Shoulda, plus she’s bringing you daily bargain therapy at Want Not. The good news is that Mir grew up and became a writer and she still really likes hanging out with her kids; the bad news is that her hair is a lot grayer than it used to be.

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