In The Mix

How and Why

A beloved novel sparks a Netflix series that explores one teen’s suicide.

Ann Farmer
  • Beth Dubber/Netflix

Tom McCarthy needed only one reason to direct the young-adult series 13 Reasons Why.

“Having two young daughters, I really connected to the subject matter,” he says.

The series, which debuts March 31 on Netflix, is based on the 2007 best-selling novel by Jay Asher about a teenager, Hannah Baker, and her mounting reasons to commit suicide. She’s shamed and bullied and suffers other abuse by her high-school classmates.

“These things are happening everywhere, all the time. And the only thing that allows them to continue is silence,” explains McCarthy, last year’s Oscar-winning director of Spotlight, about the investigation by The Boston Globe into child sex abuse in the area by Roman Catholic priests.

The series stands to garner attention, not only from devotees of the book, but as a project of Selena Gomez. The pop singer and actress serves as an executive producer along with her mother, Mandy Teefey, who bought the adaptation rights years ago. (McCarthy is also an exec producer, along with Joy Gorman, Kristel Laiblin, Steve Golin, Michael Sugar and writer Brian Yorkey; the series is produced by Paramount Television.)

“I hope it gets people to have a conversation about how our actions affect those around us,” Gomez says. “I can’t wait for the fans of the book to see the show. I hope they feel we did justice to this book that is loved by so many.”

As in the book, the series begins with a voice: “Hey, it’s Hannah. Hannah Baker. That’s right. Don’t adjust your whatever device you are hearing this on. It’s me. Alive and in stereo.” As Hannah, Australian actress Katherine Langford speaks from the grave via the 13 cassette tapes she’s left behind for those she incriminates in her decision to kill herself.

One classmate is exposed as a liar for insinuating that Hannah did a lot more than engage in an innocent kiss with him. Another is outed for taking clandestine photos of her. “What makes it compelling are all the twists and turns,” McCarthy says, “which also make it honest and relatable.”

Adapting a popular book, though, can be tricky. When Brian Yorkey wrote the series, he knew fans would scrutinize it for its fidelity. But, he explains, he also wanted to layer in surprises, “so that we’re not just putting pictures to a book.”

Finding the right actors was another hurdle. “The casting was endless,” McCarthy admits.

At some point, the production start was looming, and they still hadn’t cast Hannah. McCarthy had initially passed on Langford, who had sent a self-taped audition and was inexperienced in front of a camera. He got a nagging feeling that he should take a second look. They worked on a scene via Skype, and he quickly became convinced.

All those involved know that the book has saved lives. “Now we have the opportunity to extend that reach,” says Yorkey, adding, “Entertainment is not a curative. TV is not a substitute [for human outreach]. That said, you go back to David Foster Wallace [the writer who took his life at 46], who said the point of fiction is to make us feel not alone.”

This article originally appeared in emmy magazine, Issue No. 2, 2017