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Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why smartly solves its source material’s biggest problems

(Left to Right) Dylan Minnette and Katherine Langford on 13 Reasons Why Beth Dubber/Netflix

When a book gets adapted into a movie or a TV show, it used to be fashionable to say, knowingly, “Of course the book was much better — just a lot more nuanced, you know?”

But over the past few years, there’s been a slew of just-okay YA novels that have been adapted into pretty good TV: first Pretty Little Liars, then The Vampire Diaries, then The 100. And now Netflix’s 13 Reasons Why, adapted from Jay Asher’s bestselling 2007 novel, is joining the ranks of book-to-TV adaptations that will make you say, “Of course the TV show was a lot better.”

Showrunner Brian Yorkey, who won a Pulitzer in 2010 for his musical Next to Normal, has preserved Asher’s high-concept structure and his thriller-like pacing, but he’s managed to discard most of the cheap and lazy choices that bogged down the book. What’s left is an addictive, immersive show that comes with the standard Netflix flaws — the story gets bloated halfway through the 13-episode season, which tends to happen with shows built for binge-watching — but also manages its grim material with elegance and nuance.

Netflix keeps the book’s premise and tension but expands the characters

And the premise of 13 Reasons Why is indeed grim. Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford), a 17-year-old high school junior, has killed herself. Before she died, she made a set of cassette tapes detailing the 13 reasons for her suicide, and arranged for them to be sent to the 13 people she blames for her death. Each person is required to listen to the whole set and then pass the tapes along to the next person on the list, like a demented chain letter: the boy who told the entire school she was a slut after they kissed once; the boy who reduced her to the best ass in school; the girl who believed the rumors and blamed Hannah when her boyfriend dumped her — and, eventually and horrifyingly, the boy who turns out to be a rapist.

Both the book and TV show begin when the tapes reach Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a boy who quietly nursed a crush on Hannah when she was alive and can’t imagine what he might have done that would drive her to suicide. Clay’s stories and Hannah’s run parallel to one another: We follow Clay as he bikes frantically through town, seeking out the places Hannah describes as he listens to her tapes through his headphones.

The juxtaposition of the two stories keeps the tension high, and it’s responsible for most of the book’s relentless momentum. Even when not all that much is happening, everything feels more ominous because the text is rapidly switching points of view and timelines.

The TV show moves a little more slowly than the book, and that’s mostly a good thing. The book never develops its characters beyond giving them each a name and a single trait (Alex: objectifying; Courtney: two-faced), but the TV show turns them all into genuine three-dimensional people. Alex (Miles Heizer) becomes a New Wave-obsessed music geek riddled with guilt for his sins, and Courtney (Michele Selene Ang) becomes a type-A overachiever working desperately to overcompensate for her secrets.

The show is at its most compelling when it comes to Clay and Hannah

The most important character development in 13 Reasons Why goes to Clay and Hannah. Book Clay is flat as paper, a self-described nice guy whose defining character trait is that parents like him because he says please and thank you. But as played by Minnette, TV Clay is a likably awkward loner who slowly frays into a single raw nerve ending over the course of the show. You believe that he’s genuinely nice; you also believe that he has more than one personality trait.

Book Hannah has some shading, but just enough to establish that she was born out of the fantasies of a thousand lonely high school boys: She’s attractively damaged but secretly pure, sarcastic but unthreatening, and only Clay really understands her because of a secret connection they have that the book does nothing to sell. (Asher notes in his afterword that his editor pushed him to make Clay and Hannah interact more than once so that readers would buy their instant connection, and the fact that their subplot was an afterthought shows.)

Langford adds some edge and wit to Hannah’s sarcasm while preserving the wide-eyed vulnerability underneath. Her damage isn’t sexy, but it is compelling: 13 Reasons Why features endless close-ups of Hannah’s eyes filling with tears and her chin just beginning to wobble as she realizes that once again, someone she thought was a friend has betrayed her, and damned if Langford doesn’t manage to sell it every time. And she and Minnette have an easy, bantering chemistry in the Clay/Hannah subplot, which is much-expanded for the better.

But the most important change the TV show makes from the book lies in the way it treats its central mystery. The book cheats in its resolution to the mystery and betrays its central premise, and it’s the TV show’s greatest strength that it finds a way to repair that story beat.

Spoilers follow.

The book got cheap and lazy when the time came to resolve its central mystery, but the TV show plays fair

The mystery that drives the narrative engine of 13 Reasons Why is the question of why Clay is on the tapes. Clay is, we are told again and again, a nice guy who liked Hannah, so what did he do? Why does she blame him for her death? What’s the little thing that Clay didn’t even realize he did that ended up breaking this girl? How do self-described nice guys damage the girls they like?

It’s a compelling question that fits seamlessly into the book’s central theme. In Hannah’s words, “Everything affects everything.” We are all responsible for how we treat one another, and we are all complicit in each other’s self-destruction. We can all fail one another, even if we think we’re nice and hence blameless.

But the book chickens out. It can’t face the idea that Clay actually might have been complicit in Hannah’s death. When Clay listens to his tape, Hannah informs him immediately that he is blameless and innocent, that she’s just including him on her list because she wants him to know what happened to her. She did freak out after they hooked up at a party, but that was her stuff, not his. Clay did nothing wrong. Clay, listening, breathes a sigh of relief and finishes the rest of the tapes in a spirit of righteous self-approval. He knew he was a nice guy all along.

The central message of the book becomes: We are all complicit in each other’s self-destruction unless you’re a super nice guy, and then you’re just nice and bitches be crazy but there’s really nothing you could have done.

It’s as though Katniss Everdeen managed to get through the Hunger Games without killing someone. It’s a cowardly narrative choice that betrays the story’s entire premise. It means the tension that drove everything that came before was all based on a lie, because it came from the narrator writing a check he couldn’t cash. Aesthetically, it’s cheap and it’s lazy.

The TV show avoids putting too much stress on the question of what Clay did from the beginning by outsourcing most of the tension to the other people on Hannah’s list. They’ve heard the tapes, too, and they’re not thrilled that an outsider is about to learn all their deepest secrets — especially, they mutter darkly, an outsider that Hannah considered to be innocent. It’s a change in focus that goes a long way toward keeping Clay’s tape from feeling like a betrayal rather than a twist.

More importantly, the show doesn’t allow Clay to duck responsibility for Hannah’s death. Hannah may think Clay is innocent, but Clay doesn’t. His sins are pretty minimal — he laughed at a dumb joke here, got jealous and defensive there — but they exist, and Clay feels their weight. He believes in his own complicity, and that belief restores the central idea of the story: Everything affects everything.

13 Reasons Why is a pretty good TV show that transcends its source material

13 Reasons Why is not a perfect TV show. Its pace starts to sag dangerously around the eight-episode mark, and it repeats certain beats again and again, especially in the parents’ storylines (Clay’s mother is worried about him, but his dad thinks she’s overreacting; rinse, repeat).

It is, however, a pretty good TV show. Its characters are rich, its conflicts tense and compelling, and the cast strong and charismatic. And as an adaptation, it corrects and transcends the book it’s based on.

That’s a notable achievement, because 13 Reasons Why was not a very good book. Of course, the TV show is much better — just a lot more nuanced, you know?

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