I’m sure by now almost everyone has heard of this show, either from personally watching it or because of the controversy that has surrounded it. But how many of you knew that this was a book? And a book that was published almost 10 years ago in October 2007? I suspect that number is significantly less, which is extremely disappointing because I believe that the book’s message has been lost in this series, a series that I genuinely wish was never created. And here’s why.
Given my own personal struggles with darkness and suicidal ideation, I am the first person to advocate for speaking up and openly about these topics…if it is done correctly. I do not believe the Netflix series of this tremendous novel has succeeded in its intentions, nor has it done the message that was so clearly conveyed in the novel any justice. Admittedly, yes, this series has succeeded in getting people talking about mental illness and suicide, but at what cost?
Because Netflix is part of the entertainment industry, the primary purpose of every show is to do just that, to entertain. So here is a show that is intending to educate the population on mental illness and suicide, yet with the underlying intention of entertaining its viewers. We have become so desensitised to the images we see on television screens that in order to feel anything, the images have to continue to become more and more grotesquely graphic. And this is what many witnessed in this series.
I watched the interview, Beyond the Reasons, with the producers of this show and they explained their reasoning behind making certain scenes excruciatingly graphic – they wanted those scenes to be uncomfortable because there is “nothing comfortable about rape or suicide”. Although I can understand these intentions, the execution failed considerably because of the medium used to communicate this message. These images have been destructive; they have failed to be a deterrent. They have instead been triggering to a significant number of the population.
Having worked for Crisis Text Line since last December, I witnessed the immediately harmful effects of this show. Not only did I have texters texting in about this show causing flashbacks, but fellow crisis counsellors also found the show to be triggering given their own traumatic experiences. In addition to this, these images, much like everything we see on television, is processed primarily by our subconscious. That means we internalise what we see. The explicit depiction of Hannah committing suicide was unnecessary because it has essentially given those struggling with suicidal ideation a subconscious “how to” guide of how to kill themselves. And why is this so dangerous? Well, maybe because of the “Werther Effect” which is “a spike of suicides after a widely publicised suicide.” Given that Netflix has the potential to reach millions of individuals, I would not be shocked if this is one of the consequences of this show.
The book, however, was powerfully moving. I read it back in February and found it to be one of those books that makes you reconsider the way you live your life. The message was unquestionably clear; you never know what someone else has experienced, and how something seemingly so insignificant can have an irreversible impact on another individual, “When you mess with one part of a person’s life, you’re messing with their entire life. Everything…affects everything,” (Asher, p. 201). In the book, Hannah Baker was perceived as being strong and the tapes never came across as vindictive. She took responsibility for her role in how things played out and because of the events that took place, the reader could empathise with her ultimate demise. All of this, all of these messages, all of the empathy for her character, all of it was lost in the series.
I genuinely wish that this book never became a series. Instead, I wish that this book became mandatory reading for all high school students so that they can realise how their words, actions, and even inactions can cause irreversible damage. Any time someone brings up the series, I immediately ask them, “Have you read the book?” To which I’m invariably answered with a, “No”. And that disappoints me, because the book did such an impeccable job of discussing these issues of rape, of suicide, of rumours, of bullying, and it did so in a way that wasn’t entertaining. It did so in a way that forces you to be reflective, to become aware of your behaviour moving forward. So please, before you click to watch the series or allow your children to watch the series, I strongly urge you to read the book. Because the book, not the series, might just help save someone’s life.
If you or a loved one are ever in a crisis, please text HELLO to 741741.