Thirteen Reasons Why and the Changes from Book to Screen

There are books that stick with us throughout the years, and after reading Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher a little over a decade ago, I knew it would be one of them. The premise is haunting, but it begins an important discussion that needs to be had, especially in an age where bullying continues to be prevalent. It was quite fascinating to see how I connected to this title as a teenager, and now as a young adult with Netflix’s adapted series.

Thirteen Reasons Why (stylized as Th1rteen R3asons Why) starts when Clay Jensen returns home from school to find a strange package left on his doorstep. He opens it and finds cassette tapes that he learns were recorded by Hannah Baker—his former classmate and crush who recently committed suicide. Hannah informs him that there are thirteen reasons why she wanted to end her life, which he will learn by listening to the tapes.

Netflix released the thirteen-episode season on March 31 to glowing reviews. Variety gave the series a rave review, saying “…this show is exceptional,” while TV Guide called the show “must-see TV.” But what differences can longtime fans of the book expect from the show?

The core focus of both the book and the series are main characters Clay Jensen and Hannah Baker. A colorful cast of characters is masterfully interwoven, with each appearing only for a short period of time. Which led me to wonder: how would the show, with thirteen hour-long episodes, handle the fast-paced nature of the text? Well, with a few differences from text to screen.

The biggest changes are the timeline of the story as well as an added focus on characters who were relatively minor in the book. The entire book takes place over one night, while the show occurs over a week. This allows viewers a more in-depth chance to learn the backstory and history of every character featured on the tape, not just Clay and Hannah. It was especially eye-opening (and heartbreaking) to get to see Hannah’s parents and how they’ve continued with their day-to-day lives. There was simply no way to fit them into the novel, which primarily follows Clay’s experience with Hannah’s tapes.

The original text only really shows Hannah’s perspective, Clay’s reaction, and occasional input from other characters. But the show slows things down to illustrate that there can be more than two (or thirteen) sides to every story. Viewers are given the chance to learn the full story of characters they might have only been tangentially angry at in the novel. And while the book gives a fairly open ending, allowing the reader/listener to connect the dots, the show has created a stepping stone to another potential season.

But before (or maybe after) you enjoy the show, make sure to grab your headphones and listen to the audio. Being able to experience the story the same way Clay did, hearing Hannah speak her final words through a listening device, makes the account seem all the closer. Narrator Debra Wiseman is so eerily reminiscent of how I’ve always pictured Hannah to sound in my head, and being surrounded by her voice will pull at your heart strings even more.

Listen to a clip from the audio, narrated by Debra Wiseman and Joel Johnstone: THIRTEEN REASONS WHY

See what Jay Asher had to say about the importance of discussing tough topics like bullying in another post, as well learning more about our anti-bullying site, The Bully Conversation.