Friday, July 13, 2012

Thirteen Reasons Why and Ben X: Stories of Hope and Suicide

Because I’m me, I kept thinking of an obscure Belgian movie, Ben X, while I was reading/listening to Jay Asher’s novel Thirteen Reasons Why. The novel begins with high schooler Clay Jensen receiving a package with no return address. Inside it is a series of tapes that Hannah Baker recorded shortly before committing suicide. The tapes promise to detail who and what led her to that decision. The “reasons” of the title refer to the thirteen people addressed on Hannah’s tapes, and her instructions are that once you have finished listening, you have to send them on to the next “reason”; if you don’t, a second copy of the tapes will be released publicly.

Thirteen Reasons Why follows Clay around town as he listens and reacts to the tapes. The novel is formatted with Pause and Play buttons in the text to show when the perspective switches from Hannah’s recorded voice to Clay’s first-person narration; the audio book uses separate voice actors for Hannah and Clay, which makes the transitions even easier to follow.

The novel reveals Hannah’s death one the very first page, but as I progressed through the story, I kept having doubts as to whether she was really dead. First, she didn’t have a funeral and it wasn’t clear who or how many people had seen her body. Second, Thirteen Reasons Why is a young adult book, and even with violent series like The Hunger Games and the Maze Runner trilogy out there, having a suicidal protagonist who actually goes through with her plan seemed too dark for a YA publisher to want to touch. The third reason is the obscure Belgian movie Ben X (available on Netflix streaming).

The protagonist of Ben X has Asberger’s Syndrome, which makes it difficult for him to interact with the world around him. The constant bullying he endures at school doesn’t help, either. To help himself cope with the real world, Ben views it through the lens of ArchLord, the online role-playing game he plays at home. He brings up an overworld map to navigate from home to the bus to school; he sees his bullies as monstrous ogres and imagines chopping of their heads.

(Note: Ben X is not related in any way to the similarly-named cartoon series Ben 10. Ben X is the name Ben uses for his ArchLord avatar; it also means “I am nothing” in Dutch gaming slang.) 

The torment from Ben’s bullies and the inability or unwillingness of his family and teachers to do anything to help him pushes Ben to contemplate suicide. Before he can follow through with his plans, though, he receives a message from Scarlite, his frequent partner on ArchLord missions, saying she is worried about him and wants to meet in real life.

(The rest of this post is going to have several major spoilers for both Thirteen Reasons Why and Ben X.)

Instead of merely trying to talk him out of his plans, real-world Scarlite tells Ben his “Endgame” is weak. He needs to find a way to make everyone feel the pain that’s driving him to suicide. And this is where Ben X and Thirteen Reasons Why really converged for me, because Hannah’s goal in recording and distributing her tapes is to see and confront what they did (and didn’t do) to her.

Together with his family, Ben and Scarlite concoct a plan to stage his suicide and record it on video. That video, along with footage of Ben being humiliated at school and interviews with his parents and teachers, are played at Ben’s funeral. Ben is hiding in the balcony, and when Scarlite finally convinces him to stand up and reveals himself, the light from the projector behind him appears to give him angel wings.

To use the language of video games, Ben’s life ended when he died on the screen, and now he can restart with a new life.

I kept waiting for a similar twist in Thirteen Reasons Why. I thought the final instructions on the last tape would lead Clay Jensen to the spot where Hannah has been hiding out while the tapes pass from one of her “reasons” to the next, and she would get to confront the people who have hurt and failed her.

But that doesn’t happen. Unlike Ben, Hannah does not get a triumphant resurrection scene. She is really dead, and has been through the whole novel. Thirteen Reasons Why does not end on a completely dark note, however. In the final scene, Clay notices a girl named Skye whom he knew in middle school but has ignored for years. With Hannah’s voice still fresh in his memory, he decides to talk to Skye and see if she’s okay, because even though it’s too late for him to save Hannah, he might be just in time for Skye.

And while the ending of Ben X is hopeful, the story behind it is tragic. Writer/director Nic Balthazar adapted his novel Nothing Was All He Said for the movie, and in an interview, he explained that he had been inspired by reading a newspaper story about an autistic boy who committed suicide in Balthazar’s hometown of Ghent. In his suicide note, the boy said he had been bullied to death. 

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