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Why Netflix’s ‘You’ Is Such a Literary Phenomenon

Why Netflix’s ‘You’ Is Such a Literary Phenomenon

You loved the audiobook of Caroline Kepnes’s You. Part of it was Santino Fontana’s velvety purr of narration, whispering in your ear as you went about your daily routine. You was an intimate book, demanding constant and direct connection between the narrator Joe Goldberg and you, the reader. The audiobook turned that intimacy up to 11. In the book, Joe might have been addressing Beck with every “you,” but in an audiobook, he’s addressing you all along.

You’ve heard over and over that Black Mirror: Bandersnatch wins this year’s complicity Olympics, that a choose-your-own-adventure format knits a protagonist’s sins up with your own until you can’t tell which is which. But you didn’t feel complicit in Bandersnatch at all. (Then again, you cheated at Bandersnatch, if such a thing is possible. You discovered that if you waited long enough, the computer would choose for you, so you never had to make a single decision as the story defaulted its way forward. No collusion!) You was, and is, a different animal.

Once the TV adaptation of You landed on Netflix, you approached it with some trepidation. You never watched Gossip Girl, so your exposure to Penn Badgley was minimal, and you weren’t sure he would be able to pull off Joe. Book Joe, at least with Fontana’s narration, was particularly scary because for all his faults—like, for example, murdering people—he was logical, sexy, and smart. TV Joe is different, with many of those differences inherent in the strengths and weaknesses of filmed entertainment.

“You” takes advantage of those strengths, making the story funnier and more expansive. You never get out of Joe’s head in the book, but in the TV series, you get to hear Beck’s voice, at least for a while, and it’s refreshing. It may not make you like Beck, exactly—Beck isn’t always easy to like—but she should get a turn, and here, she does. (Though writers like you may find themselves hissing Why doesn’t she ever write? at the screen long before someone else in the story makes that observation.) Shay Mitchell as Peach and Hari Nef as Blythe deliver their arch, sharp lines with relish, and Joe is never quite as in control of things as he thinks or wants, which makes the whole enterprise about as fun as anything narrated by a sociopathic stalker can be.

There are the usual concessions to TV, many of which have to do with making everyone more good-looking than the book descriptions would have them be. Then again, you know how this works. You’ve seen The Magicians. Joe’s young neighbor Paco appears to have been added to the mix in order to suggest, at least for an episode or two, that Joe can’t be so bad if he’s keeping an eye on a kid who needs him, offering him kindness, wisdom, and the occasional meatball sub. When you read Vulture’s recaps, in which the kid character is referred to as “Stairwell Urchin,” you think that sounds about right. These additions amp up the unbelievability, but believability was never You’s strong suit.

The adaptation hits most of the major plot points in the book, although because it’s condensed, they come off a bit differently. The book doesn’t feel nearly as much like a game of Whack-a-Mole—TV Joe has barely dispatched (i.e. murdered) one obstacle (i.e. person) on his way to bliss with Beck when the next one rears its ugly (i.e. beautiful, because it’s TV, and in one case it’s even John Stamos) head. Maybe it’s a problem inherent in the episodic structure. Maybe we could have done with fewer murders. Maybe knowing the book makes the series, though they’re hardly identical, less surprising.

But you have to admit you watched most of the TV adaptation in the same spirit you read most of the book—admiring its audacity without ever relaxing into it, hoping that there would be some kind of ending you didn’t foresee. You wanted a clever twist. You wanted it not to end the way you feared it would end, the way stories like this end all too often. And though the season finale of You does end differently from the book, the fact that it’s a season finale and not a series finale tells you that it doesn’t end as differently as you’d hoped for 10 episodes that it would.

You’re still not sure whether you like You. Is it a cautionary tale? Above-average diversion? Popcorn entertainment or savage critique of toxic masculinity and the behaviors that enable it? A little bit of everything, you think.

By Caroline Kepnes
Atria / Emily Bestler Books

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