The question of death, as depicted in popular culture, doesn’t read well. Film in particular often struggles with it, treating mortality either as an afterthought (like the body counts of action or horror movies) or as the only thought — the ultimate fade-to-black narrative construct that can be used to touch viewers, who remain aware of their own mortality while watching the emotional money shots of summertime heartbreakers or Oscar-baiting tearjerkers. Me Before You, adapted by Jojo Moyes from her 2012 best-selling novel and in theaters today, is this season’s entry into the weepy romantic drama genre, and it is — spoiler alert! — seemingly influenced by the question of when a person should be allowed to end their life.
How a person should end their life is not really considered; the why, which should be the central idea of the film, even less so. Instead, Me Before You is the story of Louisa Clark, played by Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke. Nicknamed Lou, she’s a recently unemployed 26-year-old living in a small town; the movie makes sure we know she has very few career aspirations, and even fewer hobbies, beyond accessorizing outfits that look like a very dull person’s idea of sartorial eccentricities, displaying deeply felt emotions on her elastically expressive face, and completely disregarding professional or personal boundaries. An employment agency leads her to Will Traynor (The Hunger Games’ Sam Claflin), a 35-year-old man, once the kind of playboy millionaire who took vacations resembling scenes from Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break and decorated his apartment like a very dull person who has looked at Pinterest exactly once. Will sustained a spinal cord injury as a pedestrian caught between a motorcycle and a hailed taxi, something the film treats as a great irony, given his athleticism (Me Before You understands concepts like irony about as well as it does euthanasia). For some reason Will’s parents are hiring an additional caregiver, although they already employ a man who seems like a nice and capable aide; they want a kind of “friend” for Will, who really would like to be left alone and makes no attempts to hide that preference.
Here’s the catch, because in this mortal life there always is one: Will wants to die. He’s decided he doesn’t want to live as a person with quadriplegia, and after one suicide attempt, he’s agreed to give his parents six months before seeking out physician-assisted suicide in Switzerland. Why he agreed to such an arrangement, we don’t know; his mother, we learn, is hoping to use those six months to change his mind, and hired Lou thinking she might inspire him to live after all. When Lou learns about both plans — Will’s and his mother’s — she’s horrified, and decides to fill Will’s remaining months with the kinds of activities that should make him want to continue living, conveniently throwing them together in scenarios guaranteed to make two ciphers fall in love: an ill-fated trip to a horse race, a performance by a local symphony, and ultimately, a trip to a beautiful island for what a very dull person would consider a very decadent resort vacation. “Will that love be enough to change his mind?” is another question the film introduces, even though anyone who has read the source novel will know the answer. I think other audience members will be able to guess long before the film fades to black, too. The conceit — that two young, hot characters played by two young, hot, franchise-friendly actors will no doubt fall in love and learn something that changes them forever — skips over less-sexy ethical question (should a caregiver and client have a romantic relationship?) in favor of the presumably sexier question (when will this caregiver and client kiss already!!).
A boycott of Me Before You is underway. The film has been called “disability death porn,” and the organization Not Dead Yet UK released a statement that said in part, “Not Dead Yet UK is deeply concerned to see yet another film which casts non-disabled people as disabled people and shows the lives of disabled people as not worth living.” The Reeve Foundation released a similar statement, dismayed by the film’s hashtag (#LiveBoldly, something Will keeps telling Lou she, as a young, hot, able-bodied person, is required to do): “The Reeve Foundation does not believe disability is synonymous with hopelessness or that living with a spinal cord injury is considered a fate worse than death. Disability does not sideline or disqualify someone from living a full and active life. Everyone living with paralysis can live boldly.” A Twitter campaign offered an alternative hashtag, #MeBeforeEuthanasia, which was appropriately brutal.
The book has also been the subject of criticism (this is a good round-up of some of the pressing intellectual concerns with the story, as it is presented in the novel and in the trailer for the film). I read it and disliked it very much. The book spent a lot of time inside Lou’s head, and in that version, I found Lou to be a real asshole. She was judgmental, cruel, and petty, and the implication that readers should sympathize with her was offensive for many reasons, but primarily because her beliefs were presented as a reasonable default position. Lou considers herself clairvoyant, and is constantly certain her interpretation of other people’s thoughts or actions are accurate; she is forever pointing out the pitying stares and condescending attitudes of the people she and Will interact with, humiliated by the task of navigating a wheelchair in inaccessible spaces. The alternative — that perhaps only she is projecting her own bullshit thoughts onto other people, or, better yet, that everyone should question their comfort with ableist rhetoric and campaign for people with different needs to have better services at public facilities — is not an option. Instead, Lou thinks, it totally sucks that Will is paralyzed, and it will suck forever. Moyes writes as though Lou’s journey to a more nuanced understanding of ability is relatable — that we, too, would be people who view any kind of disability as hindrance or catastrophe, until we ultimately have our lives and minds changed by one good person, someone who challenges our beliefs about what is normal, or healthy, or some other euphemism for “average.”
The book also shifted points of view, letting us see the situation from the perspective of Will’s parents, Louisa’s sister, and even Will’s aide Nathan. Tellingly, the only key character who doesn’t get his own chapter is Will himself. Moyes said, in a Q&A included with the 2013 Penguin edition, that she didn’t want to write from Will’s perspective because his motivations are the “central tensions” of the story. As a reader, I am grateful she did not attempt to convince me she knew anything about the mind of a person with quadriplegia; as a critic, I find this to be a fairly damning admission of her disinterest in understanding disability.
Me Before You the movie, as directed by Thea Sharrock, is better than the book because it dispenses with the idea of understanding anyone’s internal motivations. Me Before You is about the surfaces of these questions, not the depths. The movie believes audiences will learn as much about someone’s character from their dialogue as they will from the way a wealthy woman drapes a gray cashmere cardigan over her shoulder, and so, has not burdened itself beyond such visual cues. It is directly inspired by real-life questions posed by the right-to-die movement — Moyes has said she was inspired by a news item concerning a former rugby player with quadriplegia who decided to end his life at the same Swiss clinic named in the film, Dignitas — but Me Before You is not the result of a cinematic trickle-down effect, where painful ideas consistently, or perhaps increasingly, prevalent in real life are given fictionalized narratives as fables or guides. Instead, these questions (what is ability, and what is quality of life? What responsibilities do we have to the people we love when it comes to their health? To their death?) are given a filter, where props that resemble human beings are used to speak reductive platitudes, relying on an audience that will no doubt recognize the stakes at hand without more than a slight, superficial prompt. This is a kind of pornography — along with the phrase “disability death porn,” some people associated with the #MeBeforeEuthanasia Twitter campaign called it “inspiration porn” — because, regardless of qualifiers, it purports to know what kind of physically cathartic release the audience needs. Here it’s a good cry, as opposed to … other fluids.
Recently, as I prepared to see this movie, I found myself thinking about Moses Znaimer. In 1972, Znaimer launched Citytv, a Toronto-based television station that scandalized Canadian sensibilities, in part by broadcasting pornography so soft-core it was almost sweet. Called “Baby Blue Movies,” every Canadian you know under the age of 35 or so watched them after late-night reruns of Red Shoe Diaries, and as such Znaimer is probably responsible for some foundational aspects of our sexual identities. Anyway, in the process he also became the thinly veiled inspiration for James Woods’s character in David Cronenberg’s Videodrome. In the movie the station was called CivicTV, and the pornography turned out to be snuff films, and there was certainly no one like Debbie Harry — wearing the best red dress ever seen on film — in real life, but Cronenberg observed reality and then he filtered it into a film with better ideas.
Today Znaimer is the founder of ZoomerMedia, a corporation aimed at “boomers with zip,” and a vocal advocate for the right-to-die movement. A recent profile in The Globe and Mail called him “one of the country’s most visible proponents of what he calls ‘a new vision of aging,’” before going on to say that “in recent years Mr. Znaimer has also been using the suite of seniors-oriented media outlets he oversees … to goad the federal government into dropping its restrictions against assisted dying.”
Last year, The New Yorker published an essay by Rachel Aviv, “The Death Treatment,” about assisted suicide for people with non-terminal illnesses, and I have thought often about this section since then:
The right-to-die movement has gained momentum at a time of anxiety about the graying of the population; people who are older than 65 represent the fastest-growing demographic in the United States, Canada, and much of Europe. But the laws seem to be motivated less by the desires of the elderly than by the concerns of a younger generation, whose members derive comfort from the knowledge that they can control the end of their lives. Diane Meier, a professor of geriatrics at Mount Sinai School of Medicine, in New York, and one of the leading palliative-care physicians in the country, told me that “the movement to legalize assisted suicide is driven by the ‘worried well,’ by people who are terrified of the unknown and want to take back control.”
The “worried well” is often the lead character in films like Me Before You, as well as what seems to be their presumed audience. My sincerest apologies to Susan Sontag, but these movies often feel like they’re auditioning for a new Netflix category called “Illness As Metaphor.” There are cancer narratives, like Love Story, or movies about characters who sustain paralysis-inducing injuries, like Million Dollar Baby, but stories about ability, disease, or death are almost always about friends, families, or caregivers — the people outside, looking in — and about the lessons or morals that can be gleaned from such questions. In the book, Lou joins an online support forum for such a community, and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly is mentioned as an example of a film not to let their loved ones watch; it is one of the rare films largely from the perspective of a character paralyzed by an acquired brain injury (in this case, a stroke), and was based on the memoir written by Jean-Dominique Bauby after he was diagnosed with locked-in syndrome. The idea is that watching a film featuring a main character who gets to show the reality of his life on his terms would be, somehow, devastating; asking audiences to accept a main character who has just experienced a life-altering diagnosis, rather than some once-removed character observing from the outside, would be somehow dangerous. This flawed thinking is related to the other ideas of Me Before You: that we, the readers and watchers, could never be the people who have to make these decisions, or have to live after sustaining such injuries, but that we will have to watch, passive, unable to inflict our own ideas of normalcy onto the people who don’t conform.
At its London premiere last Wednesday, some protesters held up signs saying Me Before You is a “disability snuff movie.” I do not entirely agree with the language — “snuff” is a little too far; outside of a Cronenberg movie, pornography does not automatically lead to death, especially when talking about a film seemingly campaigning for an award in Best Performance by a CGI-Animated Leaf Falling to Signify the Passing of Time — but a boycott is an appropriate response to the issue at hand, a reminder that movie audiences are not solely the able-bodied and/or people with ableist prejudices. Me Before You is all parallels: a film of only either/ors, in that either we will be healthy or not, happy or sad, rich or poor, a worthwhile narrator of our own lives or the pivotal emotional prop of someone else’s story. The right-to-die movement is its own issue, with its own questions to answer; likewise, the rights of people with different needs are their own story, with its own narratives to consider. Instead, the creators of Me Before You looked at reality through a flawed lens, and then made a film with worse ideas.
Haley Mlotek is a writer and editor based in New York.