Nate Nelson / Winonan
Suicide is one of the most difficult topics to take on, both in literature and in film. It is one of those few subjects that can hit close to home for a lot of people, and if the creators aren’t careful, they can easily overstep their boundaries or portray it in the wrong light.
“13 Reasons Why,” Netflix’s recent adaptation of the book of the same name, straddles the line between sensationalism and respect, delicately. While I don’t think the show nailed every aspect of its tumultuous and dark story, the first—and possibly only—season does justice both to the brutal and often unspoken hardships of growing up and the potential for those hardships to take over.
“13 Reasons Why” is the story of Clay Jensen (Dylan Minnette), a nerdy kid on the outskirts of high school society, and his relationship with Hannah Baker (Katherine Langford). Hannah, who committed suicide weeks before, created a series of tapes detailing the 13 reasons why she took her life, and calling out the people who brought her to that point. Those tapes are then passed along between the subjects, and feature everything from rumors to slut shaming and sexual assault to victim blaming. The stark reality of what Hannah experienced hits Clay hard, and he eventually seeks revenge, or at the very least, acknowledgment of the subjects’ mistakes.
The novel “Thirteen Reasons Why” by Jay Asher was hailed as one of the most critically lauded teen novels of 2007—a dense and heavy piece of young adult fiction. It approached its topic carefully, treading lightly when needed, but also not shying away from showing the truth of the situation. This adaptation does the same, but it builds upon the original framework. It’s a deeper, more involved narrative, weaving a web of relationships between characters of all types. It’s the same basic story, but the show does take a few steps that could be considered too far.
First of all, the show is not for the faint of heart. It can be triggering for some, especially with the brutal realism of some of the darkest moments of Hannah’s life. Particularly, there are two scenes of sexual assault and a gory depiction of the suicide itself. The show pulls no punches in its depiction, which may cause problems for some viewers. It shares more with films like Gaspar Noe’s “Irreversible” or David Fincher’s “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” than typical American teen drama narratives. For anyone who has experience with any of the events depicted, I recommend you tread lightly or avoid watching entirely.
That said, I commend the team for being as realistic as they were. These sorts of topics, especially involving teens, are not something one can take lightly. To shy away from them or sideline them wouldn’t be faithful to the spirit of the original novel. It’s that distinct focus on realism that makes this show work. It would have been much easier to just state what happened than show it, but by depicting it so clearly, the show has a sort of visceral impact that it would’ve otherwise been lacking.
Another thing about the show that’s particularly striking is the visuals. Now, a teen drama is rarely ever looked upon as a visual masterpiece, but this one does some really cool things with its dual narrative. Scenes set in the past, when Hannah was still alive, are vibrant and colorful, with lush palettes and simple imagery. In the present, all that color is gone. Scenes are washed out and bordering on grayscale. It’s a minor detail, but helps develop the themes further.
I will say that the show isn’t perfect in its representation of high school life or teen suicide. It, much like other entertainment, is exaggerated and overzealous in its depictions of high school bullying and relationships. The show is packed with every possible negative situation one can think of, and the vast majority of the characters are just terrible people. That said, the show’s intent is pure and well developed. It may have stumbled or gone a bit too hard in some cases, and the ending might be too open for this style of story, but all in all “13 Reasons Why” is a solid watch. It will stick with you for a while, for better or worse, and will hopefully do some good for those in pain. But remember—the content is potentially triggering, so don’t watch it if you feel uncomfortable with it. 4/5