Review: ‘Me Before You’

From Book to Movie

Having read the novel Me Before You when the book was first released in 2012, I looked forward to the release of the film adaptation with excitement. Reviews I’d already read of  the film adaptation were extremely critical, one declaring it a ‘Deathly Dull Euthanasia RomCom.  One Google search with the words “Me before you controversy” pulls together a fascinating array of articles. From questioning Hollywood’s attitudes to disability to coverage of the protests at the London premiere of the film, and comment pieces in abundance from people living with an impairment/ physical disability, ill health or mental health issues, (links below) to an article from director Thea Sharrok herself, who says that at it’s core “It’s a fictional story about how important the right to choose [to live or to die].

Last Saturday (10/06/16) I finally saw the film adaptation of ‘Me Before You’ with my Mum (and Dad) Some of this post happened through discussing the film with my Mum over coffee after we’d watched it and so she deserves an acknowledgement.

 Having seen the film, on one level I wasn’t sure what all the fuss was about. ‘Me Before You’ is essentially a slushy rom-com/chick-flick. If you usually like this genre, you’ll potentially find the film an enjoyable way to pass an afternoon, but if you don’t, you likely won’t.

Skip the rest of this post if you plan to see the film but haven’t yet had the chance. 

16451997 – illustration of black clapper board for film, movie and cinema production isolated on white background with reflection effect Copyright: scanrail / 123RF Stock Photo

SPOILER: Two thirds or even three quarters of the film is true to the book, (including a certain pair of tights, and a red dress.) Lou, played by Emilia Clarke  is noteworthy, goofy, accident prone and funny, and in a difficult situation. Will’s mother, (Janet McTeer) whose heart seems quite broken by all Will has endured. Charles Dance is great as Will’s father.

Will himself (Sam Claflin) is struggling to handle the cards life has dealt him. [However, some disabled people have also complained the screenplay casts an actor in the main male lead who is ‘cripping up’ — pretending to have a severe impairment but being able-bodied. I don’t always get my head around this argument but understand it to mean than to live with some form of impairment is to be part of a culture (of disability) with its own history, culture, vocabulary and so on, and without this lived-experience, an able-bodied actor is unable to do the role justice. For the sake of context, this would be similar to an actor ‘blacking up’. That is, using makeup to darken white skin or to make dark skin darker.

For the disabled people who protested at the film’s premiere in London, (including supporters of the charity who have overall responsibility for the home where I live) and supporters of ‘right-to-live’ user-led movements such as Not Dead Yet, I understand your concerns. Help to live as full as life as possibly is vital, whether from a congenital disability, or after some other major trauma including but not limited to hemorrhage, stroke, or brain injury. Targeted support to pick up the pieces and live a full life is crucial.

In my own experience at least, growing up with a physical disability is entirely different from acquiring one, as I’ve never known any different. I don’t have a store of memories from an ‘able-bodied life’, torturing me at every turn, as Will Traynor’s character did. Yes, I was much more able in my teens than now, and I didn’t appreciate it nearly as much as I think I should have. In the years following, I’ve picked up further diagnosies, and undergone further operations. It can be unbearably hard, but there is much to be gained from persevering. 

 The film however, is not ‘real life’.

Anyone who chooses a different option also has to be bold in their choice, (hence twitter hashtag #liveboldly) set against whatever opposition or obstacles may come their way. Yes, they should be offered counselling,  as Gilbey suggests in his bleak critique of the film. Me Before You is a fictitious work written to tell a story, a piece of escapism admittedly skimming the surface of life with an impairment, to fit the book into the two hour time-frame. Shouldn’t we allow art the freedom of not always having to imitate life? If it were true to life, would it be as entertaining, or offer a temporary reprieve from one’s own experience of life?

There have been strong advocates for the ‘right to die’ movement, especially over the last decade and before that The late Science-Fiction author Terry Pratchett was one such person, who, in the final years of his life used his fame to promote his views and prompted a discussion of the legislation. The recurring attempts to alter current law to allow Voluntary Euthanasia (taking one’s own life) or Assisted Euthanasia in the UK, (allowing people who make this choice to have help from someone else to end their life) without the person who assisted another fearing prosecution, have so far proved unsuccessful. Dignitas themselves, claimed in the Daily Mail as recently as September last year that One Briton dies in the Swiss Clinic every fortnight (26 Brits, on average per year). Considering the population of the UK that same year was estimated 64.6 million (thank you Office for National Statistics! (ONS) That’s a tiny percentage even excluding non Brits. Of those who have travelled to Dignitas to end their lives, they include 23 year old Daniel James (in 2008) whose story Will’s character is very loosely based on.

To force all the above arguments, (and more not covered here) on a 2 hour Hollywood film daring to address the subject seems rather unfair. One film can surely only offer a cursory glance at best, and while there are polarised views on such a sensitive subject, any media form will never please everyone.

For Hollywood to address disability once more is another step forward. How many people in Hollywood, an industry obsessed with appearance actually have any experience of disability? Should this even matter? Penny Pepper asserts disabled people want to see films of people like them. Does that make for enough drama for Hollywood to be interested in making films aimed at so targeted an audience, even if the stories are true? Indie films maybe, but then there’s the question of how to finance such a project without the big budget of Hollywood aiming at a mainstream audience. As for Pepper’s argument that the film’s theme is one of death being preferable over disability, the film is only showing one story, one choice made by a tiny minority. I’m hoping I didn’t spoil the film for anyone who has not already seen it. Sorry if I have. If you like romantic comedies do see if for yourself!

Over to You:

Have you seen the movie yet? If you have what do you think?

In your opinion, Is disability represented fairly movies? What about books?

Really interested in discussing the issues I raised:

  • Is creative licence for entertainment purposes.always permissible.. or should real-life issues be presented realistically?
  • Should films which feature disabled characters be targeted at a narrower audience but cover issues in more depth? Would this create more problems than it solves?
  • What about the-right-to-die theme? What are your views? Allowable in specific circumstances or devaluing the lives of disabled people? Or do you have a different opinion altogether?
  • Anything else you think I ought to have covered?

A select few of the myriad of posts, reviews and articles I sifted through while researching for this post are listed below:

Robert Booth in The Guardian ‘He wasn’t prepared for a second-class life’: why injured rugby star went to Switzerland to die (18/102008)

Ryan Gilbley wrote in the Guardian about disabled people not being ‘a thing to be pitied’ (02/06/2016)

Rowena Mason in The Guardian ‘Assisted dying bill overwhelmingly rejected by MPs’ (12/09/15)

Penny Pepper in The Guardian OpinionWe long to watch disabled characters like us. Instead we get Me Before You’ (01/06/2016)

Terry Pratchett’s video has been posted on Documentary Heaven (date unknown)

Sam from So Bad Ass has written her own review (30/05/16)

Kim Sauder in Huff Post‘s Blog ‘Why Are You Complaining? Some People Actually Feel That Way’: A Critique of ‘Me Before You’ (25/05/16)