Before you start shouting about spoiler alerts, let me point out that the headline of this piece does not indicate in what context this suicide occurs. Could be real life. Could be a play, a movie, a TV, or a book. In fact, it’s several movies and at least one book; I’m sure there are many more. Because when it comes to representations of disability, the cliché of the person in the wheelchair who can’t accept life after becoming disabled is a fairly standard device, sad to say.
I am not, however, writing in the abstract, so let me now make clear: the headline refers, in this case, to the film Me Before You, which opens nationally this weekend. Marketed as if it were from the word factory of Nicholas Sparks, Me Before You is the work of romance novelist Jojo Moyes. It has reportedly sold some six million copies, which means that the target audience for the movie, namely fans of the book, already know the outcome. So I haven’t really spoiled anything. The spoiler, had the movie diverged from the book, would be, “The Guy In The Wheelchair Decides To Live And Love Like Countless People With Quadriplegia Do Even Without Having Bags Of Money Like The Dude In This Story.”
Having seen the film, I would even argue that my headline serves as a useful translation of what takes place. Why? Because when it comes time for Will, the dashing wheelchair user, to end his life after being brought out of his shell by kooky Louise, who has been hired to be his companion, he merely asks her to bring his parents into his oh-so-charming bedroom at the assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. Then we watch a single digitally rendered leaf fall from a tree, changing colors and turning brown before it reaches the ground. Yup, his suicide is equated with nature’s inevitability and we don’t see any of it, lest it trouble the sensitive viewer with anything nasty.
I want to be clear about this: whatever your position on assisted suicide, it is not part of the circle of life. Rather, it is a choice to alter life’s path drastically, and for god’s sake it’s not a metaphor. It is death. But the gauzy view of disability and dying on display in Me For You has no use for such truths, because that would mar the Cinderella/Pretty Woman paradigm it struggles to project. The film is so rigged in favor of Will’s choice that his parents barely appear on screen with him and both his pre-accident friends and Louisa’s athletic fiancée are insensitive dolts. There’s also a gender paradigm at play, with the film’s women arguing against Will’s decision, while the men position his choice as being somehow the manly thing to do.
Both Jojo Moyes and Emilia Clarke, who plays Louisa, in interviews, have tried to convey that Me Before You is meant simply to be one story, complete unto itself, rather than a tract about disability and assisted suicide. While that may well be true, and they ultimately have the right to tell any story they choose, the fact that the end result plays more like a lengthy public service announcement for the assisted suicide organization Dignitas than an actual drama does undermine their argument.
If Me Before You existed in a vacuum their defenses might help them get by, but the fact is that when major films choose to display disability narratives, they tend to be inspiration porn (look how Christy Brown overcame his disability in My Left Foot and how brilliant Daniel Day Lewis is in contorting himself to pretend to disability), legal debates (Brian Clark’s Whose Life Is It Anyway?, from which Me Before You filches some repartee about the proximity of breasts to a man with paraplegia) or stories of spirits set free from their broken, damaged bodies (if Hilary Swank can no longer box, she has nothing left in her life and it’s only right that Clint Eastwood help kill his Million Dollar Baby).
Me Before You is really about how knowing Will has transformed Louisa’s life, since hers is the story that will go on and puts the selfless suicidal guy in a wheelchair up there with such other overplayed tropes as the magical black man and the wise Asian. Louisa is in fact a manic pixie dream girl. So the film is about two tired stereotypes and their stereotypical families. One family represents the coolly removed British aristocracy, who are so generous as to convert their stables as a private home for Will, rather than actually renovating their stately manor; part of their estate which also includes a castle, reinforcing the fairy tale elements of the story. The other family is salt of the earth working class. But make no mistake – Louisa is the heroine and Will is a device.
While we’re told Will experiences bouts of pain that causes him to scream in anguish, he faces nothing so agonizing on screen. Yes, we do see him fighting off pneumonia, but his other “challenges” in the film amount to: 1) having to have his chair lifted out of the mud by three passing burlymen because Louisa is an idiot, 2) grappling with the discomfort of a clothing sales tag that remains in his collar, and 3) having Louisa ladle hot soup into his lap. These are all played for laughs, and the last glosses over the possibility that while Will may not feel it, he may have sustained a burn. All of this is representative of the film’s effort to use disability as a plot device, without ever doing more than skimming the surface, oh so politely, of life with disability.
Look, I’m a middle aged guy who has no disability. So I’m not the target audience for this film. But I still want to speak out, among many other voices. At a Wednesday night screening in New York, the theatre was filled overwhelmingly with young women, and if this film manages to succeed, I worry that it will fetishize romantic supermodels in wheelchairs who serve to empower and enlighten young women before taking themselves out of the equation so those women can realize their true potential in life and love. Think I’m being harsh? Moyes wrote a sequel, providing further adventures for our Louisa, confirming that the story is indeed hers and not even hers and Will’s.
I also can’t presume to speak for people with disabilities, but they’re working hard to make their feelings about this film known, and you can look to places like The Chicago Tribune and Salon for more personal accounts. But as someone who advocates for artists with disabilities, and for truer portrayals of disability on stage, screen and television, I find Me Before You to be simultaneously dull and dangerous, because it both sugarcoats and homogenizes every element of its story to the point that both the disability and mortality at its core are rendered as negligible, beyond the extent to which they have an effect upon the emotions of the non-disabled protagonist.
As a film, Me Before You is pedestrian. As a story that deals in significant issues, it is at best clueless and at worst callously indifferent. As a statement about disability and assisted suicide, it is a Hallmark ad in favor of the latter. See it if you must, but try to pay attention to what it leaves out, namely the reality of life for countless people with disabilities. If anyone deserves to brandish the film’s marketing slogan (and hashtag campaign) “Live Boldly,” it’s them, not anyone in this bland contraption.
P.S. One small side note: Me Before You asks us, in its opening scenes, to believe that a Londoner walks out into a downpour in a bespoke suit without an umbrella. If nothing else I’ve written convinces you of the film’s lack of truthfulness, that certainly should.
For more information about the disability community’s perspective on Me Before You, visit Disbeat.
Howard Sherman is interim director of the Alliance for Inclusion in the Arts.