All the Bright Places
How Netflixs All the Bright Places Tackled Teen Suicide in the Wake …
Director Brett Haley and screenwriter Liz Hannah took special care in adapting Jennifer Nivens 2015 young adult novel, which grapples with mental health …
How Netflix’s All the Bright Places Tackled Teen Suicide in the Wake of 13 Reasons Why | Vanity Fair
February 28, 2020Walter Thomson/Netflix. By
In 2017, Netflix found itself at the center of serious controversy when the teen drama series premiered—showing, in graphic detail, the suicide of its central character, Hannah Baker. At the time, mental health experts repeatedly that such an of the character’s death was dangerous, and could potentially glorify suicide to at-risk audience members—inspiring teens to copy what they had seen play out onscreen. Teenage suicides had already disturbingly spiked nearly over the previous decade, according to the Centers for Disease Control—but in the month after 13 Reasons Why premiered, there was a nearly increase in suicide among Americans between the age of 10 and 17, according to a study funded by the National Institutes of Health. Though the 2019 study did not prove causation, the correlation was alarming enough for Netflix and the producers of 13 Reasons Why—who had previously stood by their decision to depict Hannah’s suicide—to finally out of the series, two years after it had premiered.
At the time, National Institute of Mental Health scientist Lisa Horowitz content creators that “young people are particularly vulnerable to the media.” She added, “All disciplines, including the media, need to take good care to be constructive and thoughtful about topics that intersect with public health crises.”
So when Netflix teamed up with filmmaker Brett Haley (I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Hero) and screenwriter Liz Hannah (The Post) to adapt All the Bright Places—Jennifer Niven’s 2015 young adult novel, which grapples with teenage depression and suicide—for the screen, the streaming service did so with extreme caution.
“You must enter these projects thoughtfully and with care and with a vision for what you’re saying,” Haley told Vanity Fair Wednesday afternoon, explaining that Netflix provided a network of mental health professionals with whom to consult at each stage of production. “We ran the script by them and talked to them in pre-production about what kind of message we were putting forth. We made sure that we weren’t depicting anything in any kind of dangerous capacities that could be triggering. There was a lot of conversation around what this film was about, what it was saying, and how it was saying it.”
[Spoilers ahead for those who have not read the novel.]
The book opens with two high school students, Theodore Finch and Violet Markey, on the ledge of their school’s bell tower, contemplating suicide. He struggles with bipolar disorder. She is grieving the death of her sister. The novel tracks the sweet romance between these two broken teenagers—as Finch helps heal Violet, and he rebuffs her reciprocal attempts. Inspired by a tragic event in the author’s own life, All the Bright Places ends with Finch’s suicide by drowning, and Violet’s struggle to rebuild her life after.
When adapting the story for the screen, Haley said that he and Hannah consciously decided to blur the lines around the circumstances of Finch’s death—leaving it more open to audience interpretation. In the film, Violet (Elle Fanning) returns to the same lake where she and Finch (Justice Smith) spent a sunny afternoon, finds his discarded clothes and personal effects, and determines his death without seeing a body. Finch is mourned by family and friends, but the specifics of his death are purposefully left vague.
“We purposefully did that because we don’t feel that [Finch’s death] was as simple as, ‘Well, he committed suicide. He was depressed and he wanted to die,’” Haley said. “I want it to be a gray area, and I want people to feel like they could have a conversation about mental health after they watch this film and what they think happened with Finch. It isn’t as defined or clear as, say, 13 Reasons Why, if we’re going to compare them. But I don’t think that they’re comparable, personally.” He added, “We have to take into account that sometimes, people harm themselves or others in various states when they’re not meaning to.”
He and Hannah also pared back the number of suicide references—casual conversational mentions by Finch—made in the book. The film also skips over a plot point from the novel in which Violet discovers that Finch has attempted suicide.
“My interpretation of Finch was that he was suffering from an undiagnosed mental illness, and those can play out in many ways,” said Haley, who said he worked with Niven to settle on “a slightly different interpretation of Finch” for the film. “Yes, he is a little bit more vocal about suicide in the book,” said Haley, explaining that he wanted to explore the dangers of “not speaking up about what you’re going through…. There’s way more of a conversation around this issue than, ‘Kid is depressed, kid kills himself or herself.’ This is a gray and complex issue…. I hope if you see the film, you can see that we were not in any way, shape, or form trying to be flippant or manipulative or sensationalize any of these issues, but rather ground them in reality in a human way and make people feel and think and take a moment and hopefully speak up if they are suffering.”
The film ends with a dedication to those who have been impacted by mental health concerns, suicide, or grief. It also directs audience members who are suffering, or know of someone who is, to with resources about mental health.
Haley was clear that—in spite of the film’s subject matter—he does not want All the Bright Places to be misconstrued as a message film. His references were artistic, romantic works like Terrence Malick’s Badlands, Jane Campion’s Bright Star, and James Ivory’s A Room With a View—indicating that there’s more to All the Bright Places than an examination of mental health.
“I related to Violet and Finch, and I loved seeing them fall in love with each other. I’m a sucker for a good romance, and I felt that it was a great vehicle to discuss some of the pains that we hide,” said Haley. “I think that everybody has their own personal struggles in life, whether that be grief or depression or anxiety—life is complex and can be very hard sometimes. The idea of speaking up about these pains is something that I’m very passionate about, and I try to do more in my own life. But I think that everyone should feel the freedom to speak up.”
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