13 Reasons Why: Is Netflix’s newest hit series better or worse than the book?

As you may have seen from a previous blog post, Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why is one of my favorite books. In fact, I think it should be required reading. Compelling, powerful, a great message of how people’s seemingly harmless actions can go further than anyone could expect….

It’s no wonder Netflix chose it to be their next hit series.

Now you all know how conflicted and finicky I can be when it comes to film or TV adaptations of my favorite books. So I went into this series with more than a little apprehension.

Yes, there were some moments of dissatisfaction when I found myself once again asking why Hollywood felt the need to change things. But there were also several occasions when I applauded the producers choices to make the story even stronger in series form.

So in an effort to share an unbiased review with you all – and to process my own feelings after binge watching my way through the thirteen episodes – I am going to share my highs and lows for each version of Asher’s story.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

7 Reasons Why the Book is Better

    • The most notable difference between the two versions of the story is that in the novel, Clay listens to all the tapes in a span of 24 hours. Back after back, he follows Hannah’s map around town, listening to the occurrences that drove her to the decision to end her life. Where this method kept the tension extremely high, the series – which occurs over several days if not weeks – felt too drawn out. Plus in the age of instant gratification, it seems much more likely that a teenager would listen to the tapes in one sitting.
    • Narrated in first person, the reader of Asher’s novel gets some very poignant internal thoughts and reaction from Clay while listening to Hannah’s tapes. Particularly powerful in Cassette 6: Side B when he hears about her rape, pounding on the fence and vomiting. The connection between Hannah and Clay was so raw and painful, it forced those emotions into the reader. I missed some of that in the series.

      I wanted it to be this very intimate story between Clay and his very immediate reaction to what he’s hearing. I wanted to keep it basically just the two of them.
      – Jay Asher

    • In the series, Tony reveals himself as the keeper of the second set of tapes/Hannah’s confidante in the very first episode. But in the novel, he doesn’t come forward until much later, leaving Clay to struggle alone for the first several tapes. This isolation parallels beautifully with Hannah’s and only increases the tension, paranoia and guilt of Clay’s journey.
    • While we are on Tony, can someone please explain to me the car choice? No teenage middle-class boy drives a red vintage Mustang.giphy.gif
    • Why have lawsuits become the new answer to everyone’s problems? I like seeing that Hannah’s parents were struggling and desperate for an explanation. But suing the school? It felt contrived and forced. If they wanted to fight for their daughter, I wish it would’ve happened sooner… Not just when they could blame someone else.
    • Let me continue this discussion on parents by mentioning that parents were nowhere to be found in the book. At first glance, I liked that they were added back in. Until I realized that they served no purpose. Clay’s parents in particular were everything that is wrong with parenting in this world: absent, inattentive, blind. When Clay started having nightmares, their first action was to try to medicate him instead of listening. So why add them into the TV show? I gleaned enough from their absence in the book… I didn’t have to watch them to understand.
    • Another large change… In the book, Clay just passes the tapes on to the next person and befriends another girl at school that may have issues. But in the series, Clay becomes an active justice seeker, even though it’s too late for Hannah. He confronts Hannah’s rapist, but while Bryce may have pushed Hannah over the edge… It isn’t the main reason for her depression. So while Bryce absolutely needs to be in jail, this one act seemed to cheapen the overall message of the show. While Clay may think he is doing something noble and honorable in Hannah’s name, he’s really just doing what he can to make himself feel less guilty.

 6 Reasons Why the Series Shines

    • I am so glad they didn’t try to make this into a movie. While the series felt slow at times, two hours was not enough to do the story justice.
    • I mentioned earlier that Asher’s intent with the novel was to maximize the intimacy between Hannah and Clay. And while I missed aspects of that relationship, the expansion of the story’s present-day cast of characters gives a much stronger sense of the world and its people. By giving the other twelve characters who receive the tapes a more three-dimensional role, we were able to see them as real people as opposed to evil villains. And it added a kind of fragile strength. Any one of them could be broken at any moment… Just like Hannah.Capture.JPG
    • The expansion of the ensemble cast also creates a sort of gang mentality for the others on the tapes. There are real consequences to Hannah’s story being leaked, and each of them is at risk.
    • Even Clay – the fairly innocent, nice guy, love-interest – gets a fantastic new dimension. In the novel, his presence on the tapes is quickly cast aside. Hannah believes him to be blameless in her death. But Netflix’s version of Clay is too smart for that. He knows that to be silent is to be complicit, and this allows him to truly hammer home the show’s message.
    • Where Clay’s showdown with Bruce may have felt too “avenging angel” for my taste, his and Hannah’s confrontation with Mr. Porter hit the nail on the head. Clay’s assertion that “It has to get better somehow” is at its strongest in this scene.
    • The final fifteen minutes of episode thirteen are truly the best television I have seen in a long time. It draws the perfect line between hope – with Jessica’s confession to her father and Justin’s courage in standing up to Bryce – and desolation – Alex’s suicide attempt and Tyler’s hint at a shooting spree – that embodies Asher’s story.


Overall, I have to say I am happy with both versions of the story. They may employ different storytelling techniques, but each maintains the authenticity with which the story was created.

If you or somebody you know is contemplating suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 or visit their website. We’re here to help.

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