Recently, the movie adaptation of the novel Me Before You sparked controversy from the disabled community and their allies for a variety of reasons. The mainstream movie faced harsh criticism over its storyline involving Will Traynor, a quadriplegic man, who ends up committing assisted suicide to the dismay of his caretaker and love interest, Louisa (Lou) Clark. Many who are part of the disabled community argue that this movie (that was first a fictional novel by author Jojo Moyes) augments trite stereotypes against the disabled. They also claim that the story argues that being dead is better than being disabled.
There are so many different ways I could write this article, so many directions I could take this in. Me Before You has unfortunately given the movie-going community a lot of fuel for people to set aflame. From the deletion of Lou’s sexual assault plotline from the movie to the ethical concerns about the relationship between client and caregiver and the desexualization of the disabled, there’s a lot that’s wrong that I could point out. Instead, I’m going to try and focus on the two biggest flaws I found in the franchise: the novel’s original plotline about the role of a disabled person in a story (and eventual suicide), and casting a non-disabled actor in a disabled role.
Beginnings and Inspiration
The story of Me Before You was inspired by a news article before it became a movie or even a New York Times bestseller. Author Jojo Moyes confided in an interview with Goodreads.com that the fictional tale was spawned after reading a news story about a twenty-three year old retired (and paralyzed) rugby player named Daniel James. This young man willingly died in an assisted suicide clinic in Switzerland. His parents faced a lot of criticism after his suicide and the case was reported by a neighbor and investigated by the UK police. However, his mother Julie urged people not to judge her son for his decision to end his life. She knew there was a lot more going on with him in his private life than people realized. Through further investigation, it became apparent that Daniel had been trying to commit suicide for years after a collapsed spine injury from a rugby training session left him a tetraplegic. Unfortunately, Daniel’s condition tortured him to the point where he lost his will to live and could not bear a “second-class existence” (BBC News UK). Daniel’s mother insisted that her son was very loved until the end of his life and defended her son’s right to die in subsequent correspondences.
When asked if she personally knew any quadriplegics, Jojo Moyes said she did not but has a family member who has a progressive disease that she took care of and has a child who is deaf. These experiences jogged questions in her mind. She offered this novel as a rebuttal to challenge the notions of quality of life in individuals and to open conversation about the right to die, or if such a right exists. “At what point does the quality become meaningless? At what point do you give someone the right to decide for themselves?” (Moyes 2013)
Moyes was hesitant to publish her intended ending for Me Before You. She had actually debated publishing a version of the book that included two different endings so the reader could choose the ending they preferred. She spoke with her agent about it, who told her to “write the book [she’d] been planning to write,” (Moyes). She decided to keep her original ending because she believed it made the most sense with the characters she had written. Moyes also stated that she isn’t a fan of nor did she want to write a “sugary love story,” (Moyes) because she felt that it wouldn’t be as mysterious or as gripping of a plotline. She wanted to keep the reader guessing as to how it was going to end.
Reviews of the Book
The novel has seen mixed reviews. Me Before You has been praised for Moyes’ use of voice to dissect character flaws. Critics also commended her on how she crafted a beautiful relationship between Will and Lou while touching on deeper issues. While Elise Taylor of Vanity Fair criticized the movie and Moyes for the approved deletion of Lou’s sexual assault subplot in her article, she believes the book is stunning as written. “It’s an existential work that’s masquerading as a beach read, a novel with beautiful characters whose complicated, textured souls are far more interesting.” (Taylor 2016). In her review of the novel, Liesl Schillinger of the New York Times writes that Will’s struggles are realistic and that “the fictional burden borne by Will Traynor is shared by thousands of real people and that the anxieties Lou faces are shared by still more,” (Schillinger 2013). It was this positive review in 2013 that boosted the novel’s popularity, along with Moyes’ other books. Possible movie rights and a sequel to Me Before You called After You came in response to the positive support.
“If readers take this story as a fictional piece of writing that was created to help us question and think about topics that are hard to talk about, then the book has done its job. However, if we layer this story onto its real-life implications, then the cracks in the story’s foundation show themselves.”
A stark contrast in opinion presented itself soon after. People found faults in the book’s rationale and motives behind characters making certain choices throughout the story. They also believed that the representation of disabled people, “chastity fetishism”, and the overall ableist message the novel conveys slanders the existence of disabled people. Shane Clifton, an author with a spinal cord injury and quadriplegia himself, reviewed the book on his blog. He commented that “[…] our play boy hero is really a privileged white guy who just can’t come to terms with the fact that life is fragile and difficult but that if you fight the good fight and persevere it’s worth it in the end,” (Clifton 2016).
A blogger who goes by the name of The Crippled Scholar wrote an incredibly detailed review of the book and attacked it from many different angles (I really enjoyed reading this one).The author, who has a Ph.D in Critical Disability Studies, wrote that they’d like to see a more “average” disabled character in future novels. “They never are though and Will Traynor is no different. He was active, played sports and was very athletic. This for some reasons makes his paralysis more tragic as if he lost more and this is why he is unable to come to terms with being quadriplegic,”(2016). If readers take this story as a fictional piece of writing that was created to help us question and think about topics that are hard to talk about, then the book has done its job. However, if we layer this story onto its real-life implications, then the cracks in the story’s foundation show themselves to its readers around the world.
Hitting it Big in Hollywood
A few years have gone by since Me Before You’s publication, but controversy around the story has resurfaced now that Hollywood has added itself to the mix. It was announced in 2014 that Me Before You would be adapted to a film and hitting the big screen in early June of this year, but not without strife. Warner Bros. had originally scheduled the release of the film for the end of last summer. However, they pulled the project and labeled it “Undated” for its release soonafter. Jojo Moyes would again be in charge of the writing, but this time for the screenplay. For those against Will’s suicide, this means that she could have changed the way the movie ended in favor of perhaps a more positive ending. She ultimtely decided to again stick with her original ending.
“This is not a decision that we’re saying is the right decision necessarily, but it’s [Will’s] decision and it’s kind of true to the character that he is. I guess the thing that we were interested in was if someone makes that kind of extreme decision, what’s the impact on the people around him and that’s really what this story’s about,” Jojo Moyes, The Hollywood Reporter, 2016.
Warner Bros. must have decided early this year or late last year to finally release it to the public in June. They hyped the movie as one of the must-see summer flicks of 2016. I remember hearing about the film for the first time on Facebook and seeing the first trailer in early February, months before it was set to release. I really had no idea what the premise of the story was at the time, only that a disabled character was involved and it seemed like a cute rom-com I could enjoy with my friends. One of my friends had recently read the book and said it was amazing, so I kept the film on my radar as a possible movie I could see this summer.
I was intrigued in part because Sam Claflin, of Hunger Games fame, would be a part of it, and I was excited to see him in a new role since I enjoyed seeing him as Finnick Odair. He was cast as Will, which I thought was interesting since I knew he wasn’t disabled and I was curious to see how he’d portray the role. Emilia Clarke, best known as Daenerys Targaryen on Game of Thrones, was cast as Louisa. After watching the trailer, it was clear to me that their chemistry was off the charts and the film was shaping up to be something I couldn’t miss.
“Playing somebody who wants to kill himself quite literally is one of the hardest things to understand when I’ve never felt like that.” – Sam Claflin
Sam was interviewed by The Hollywood Reporter on the day the movie hit theatres and was asked how he prepared for his role. He ended up losing 40 pounds for the film, but found that the “emotional journey” of understanding his character was much harder than his physical one. “Playing somebody who wants to kill himself quite literally is one of the hardest things to understand when I’ve never felt like that. I’ve spoken to people who have or are feeling like that and it scars you and I can’t help but think back to those people and hope that they’re still OK and find a reason to live,” (2016). He used these people to help comprehend the rationale behind Will’s decision in the book and ultimately the movie.
Social Media and Scandal
The Me Before You franchise erred heavily in their use of social media. Their platforms heavily pushed the hashtag and slogan #LiveBoldly. After articles began to surface over the controversy behind the film and its message to the disabled, I was surprised to find myself redefining their slogan in a different context, and it almost comes off as ironic. The slogan makes a mockery of Will Traynor’s choice to die and his function in the story, only “serv[ing] to propel Louisa forward, to get her to realize that her life is in a rut, that she deserves more, she should strive for more, her life has more potential. A potential it wouldn’t have if Will chose to live because she would be tied to him instead of pursuing more […]” (CrippledScholar, 2016). Will is objectified and seen more as a pitiable crutch that Louisa, an able-bodied character, ultimately ends up benefiting from. She gets a hefty inheritance from him to go and pursue her dreams. It makes me wonder as an audience member , What’s stopping Will from living as boldly as Louisa? Why can’t they #LiveBoldly together?
Because that’s a sugary happy ending, that’s why. And we already know how Jojo Moyes feels about sugary love stories.
Twitter Q & A Catastrophe
On May 23rd, Sam Claflin hosted a Twitter Q and A session on the Me Before You Twitter platform. He asked users to use the hashtag #AskSam to get in touch with him and ask him any questions about his experiences filming the movie. The chat turned sour, however, when people started questioning why he supported an ableist story such as this. Dominick Evans compiled a huge list of tweets posed at Sam that he did not answer. The chat ended early after 45 minutes.
- “Did you learn about the real issues surrounding assisted suicide & disability community when preparing for this role?#AskSam#LiveBoldly” – @sblahov
- Why use the hashtag#LiveBoldly, when the movie ends with a disabled person killing themself? How is that living boldly?#AskSam #LiveBoldly– @AllenMankewich
- “How does it feel to be in@mebeforeyou a film that devalues lives of disabled for purpose of entertaining non-disabled?#AskSam #LiveBoldly” – @mssinenomine
- “Do you believe Will’s wanting to die is caused by his disability & its medical complications or how society treats him?#AskSam#LiveBoldly” – @BlindBeader
Not Dead Yet, a group of disabled activists looking to propose legislation against assisted suicide, started a Twitter protest against the movie that caught (virtual) fire. They started the hashtag campaign #MeBeforeEuthanasia and retorted against the Me Before You account that those with disabilities already #LiveBoldly, just by living out their everyday lives. Some members of the group protested in front of movie theatres showing the movie on release day.
Interviews with the Press
Emilia and Sam were interviewed multiple times before the release of the movie for press. Videos of their interviews are up on YouTube and social media for anyone to see. All of the interviews show their dynamic personalities, charisma and light-hearted attitudes, as well as their undeniable chemistry. However, these interviews also show the actors’ good looks. I feel like that from a marketing standpoint, it definitely doesn’t hurt in trying to attract an audience and a fanbase.
And – full disclosure – I’m guilty, because Sam’s good looks attracted me to the franchise. I have nothing against him because I think he’s a fantastic actor, but there’s no getting around that Sam Claflin is a good-looking guy and he was cast as Will in part because of those good looks. And I’m sure whoever casted this movie kept that in mind and were eager to capitalize off of that.
“There’s no getting around that Sam Claflin is a good-looking guy and he was cast as Will in part because of those good looks.”
(Non)Use of Disabled Actors
Disabled Actor Visibility
Sam did a good job and played the role to the best of his ability. However, I really believe that those who casted for Me Before You should have instead offered the role of Will to an actor who actually is a quadriplegic. There are actors’ guilds for those with disabilities that simply don’t see a whole ton of opportunities to work.For this role in particular, an actor who is a quadriplegic could not only physically fit the part better, but also understand and possibly even relate to Will’s struggles on a personal level. He could thus play the role truer to what was intended in the book.
In a report from the Screen Actor’s Guild, it was pointed out that only a third of SAG members with disabilities have recently or are currently working on screen or on stage. Performers with disabilities work an average of 4.1 days a year, with those performers under 40 years old having a larger average (6.2 days) than those over 40 (3.5 days). 36% of these performers felt like they have been discriminated against or not given equal opportunities (including auditions) as non-disabled actors. The most disappointing of these statistics is that these performers were afraid or embarrassed to ask for accommodation because of their disability. “[…] they believed employers would be reluctant to hire them. Many of the performers were unwilling to be candid about their disability in fear of being viewed as an object of pity and incapable of doing the job,” (Raynor & Hayward, 2005). Apart from this, disabled actors also felt that they only got hired to play a part exclusively for their disability to portray stereotypes against the disabled community that simply aren’t true. This report came out in 2005, and over a decade later, opportunities for the disabled on screen have changed little, if at all.
“Non-disabled actors seem to win accolades for their acting skills involved in portraying a disability. Disabled people, however, never win an award for actually living with these disabilities daily, though they are the ones who seriously deserve it.”
Use of Modern Movie-Making Technology
Me Before You is a special case, however, because this movie features a flashback of life when Will was not a quadriplegic that’s only written about in the book. He is shown deeply concentrating on a phone call (and not much else). His accident occurs when he collides with a motorcycle in the middle of a rainy street. One could argue that it was necessary to cast a non-disabled actor in this role to portray this flashback, and this scene couldn’t be possible if the actor was disabled.
However, technology definitely exists where you could CGI the disabled actor’s face on a body double who isn’t disabled. Evidence for successful use of this animation is showcased in the new movie Central Intelligence, which stars Dwayne Johnson as Robbie. We all know him as the super-buff WWE wrestler-turned-actor, but this movie features a flashback to when his character was in high school and fat. Vine star Sione stood in as a body double for these scenes, and Johnson’s face was edited and animated on top of his, which made it appear that his character was out of shape in his younger years. This video breaks down how the editors did it. If we can do this to make people appear fatter in movies, those in charge of producing Me Before You could have probably done something similar so that a disabled actor could be cast in the role of Will Traynor and still could act in flashback scenes like this.
Other Portrayals of Disability in the Media
To play the devil’s advocate (because I love looking at both sides of a situation), other non-disabled actors in the past have been cast in disabled roles, whether physical or mental. These actors, movies, and franchises have not been criticized as harshly as Claflin and Me Before You. In fact, some of these actors have even been highly praised and nominated/won prestigious awards for these performances:
- Eddie Redmayne as Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything – Won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Academy Awards 2014. ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis)
- Bradley Cooper as Joseph Merrick in The Elephant Man – Nominated for Best Actor in a Play, Tonys 2015. Extreme Physical Deformities
- Julianne Moore as Alice Howland in Still Alice – Won an Oscar for Best Actress, Academy Awards 2014. Early Onset Alzheimer’s Disease
- Tom Hanks as Forrest in Forrest Gump – Won an Oscar for Best Actor in a Leading Role, Academy Awards 1994. Intellectual/Developmental Disability (no disability is exclusively named, but is heavily implied)
Larry Sapp, a music video producer and paraplegic, commented on what it’s like to work in the entertainment industry with a disability. He writes scripts usually with a disabled principal character, and is often asked to rewrite it to make the character non-disabled instead. “Actors with a disability [are only allowed to] play characters with a disability. But then when those characters with a disability come up, they only hire able-bodied actors. We don’t have a chance to honestly portray ourselves in TV and movies,” (Sapp 2013). Non-disabled actors seem to win accolades for their acting skills involved in portraying a disability. Disabled people, however, never win an award for actually living with these disabilities daily, though they are the ones who seriously deserve it.
Questions We Should Be Asking Ourselves
Why is Me Before You special?
Possibly (probably) because this story involves the voluntary death of a disabled person. The death of Will is used as a plot point that could have been avoided or edited for the movie. The movies showcased above don’t have that, and I think that’s why they were better received by the public. This movie made the story of Me Before You go mainstream, but also marginalizes what the actual disabled community is capable of. Both the book and the movie attempted to open up discussion about the right to die and quality of life, but missed the mark in its use of Will as a character, and ended up progressing the stereotype that the disabled are only useful for the benefit of non-disabled people.
Will ends up finding love with Lou but still goes through with his suicide to leave Lou money. This is so she, a non-disabled person, can live out her dreams, not him. Worst of all, the suicide is disguised as a romantic, overwhelming, all-encompassing gesture of love. At the end of the day, it still promotes the idea that non-disabled people are better off without disabled people in their lives. This objectification of Will is what I believe made so many people rise up against Me Before You and not let this movie slide as just another “chick flick”.
The overwhelming response by the media and public to this story is clear. Have we as a society changed our tolerance of disability portrayal in the media? Or, is it this story specifically that people have a problem with?
I would hope that this story has sparked an overall conversation within the book-reading and movie-going community. Producers and directors would be wise to take notice of this response for future projects. Some strides have been taken in the right direction (the recent revival of Spring Awakening on Broadway featuring deaf cast members and use of American Sign Language comes to mind). There is lots more work to be done, however. I think casting directors need to open their perspectives a little more to what disabled actors could bring to the table for different projects. Many of them are trained, but need a “yes” from the right people in order to continue in the entertainment industry. I would also hope that general audience members would want to see more diversity on TV, movies and theatre as a whole.
These disabilities are finally being broadcasted to a larger audience. Should we be happy that there is more diversity in mainstream media? Or, should we be angry that they’re being used as plot devices and pity points?
It’s a double-edged sword. I did a lot of research to write this article. The topic of disability portrayal in our culture has been written about over and over again, using many different examples dating back even to the 1960s. For this story in particular, the themes of Me Before You and their impact on audience members (but especially the disabled) should have been examined harsher before moving it forward into larger and more big-budget projects.
If so many people feel this way, and so many other articles have been written, when will Hollywood start listening?
I myself am not disabled, and I cannot comment on the opinions of the many (one billion worldwide!) disabled people out there. However, Me Before You still bothered me as a student who has been studying different disabilities throughout my college career and will hopefully one day be working somewhere within the disabled community, as well as a young woman who’s passionate about quality books and movies. I wrote this article to bring all of these different thoughts and opinions to light.
I can say that we should be gathering our inspiration for stories like these through the real life experiences of people who go through these challenges on a day-to-day basis, and maybe not just base our stories off of one news article. Let’s open our perspective to people who are different than us and learn something new. Most importantly, let’s not make assumptions about those with disabilities or try to romanticize certain problems to create a more enticing story for the audience.
In a word, let’s make realistic fiction more real. Let’s make these novels, shows, and movies a chance for disabled people to be heard and seen, and maybe then we’ll come to solve portrayal problems in the media as well as within the stories we come to love.
~*I really encourage you to read these other articles about Me Before You and disability portrayal, as I only touched on them briefly. They offer some interesting perspectives on the story and its journey into a film, as well as how disabilities are portrayed in the media. *~
- Cost of Care: ‘Me Before You’ by Jojo Moyes – by Liesl Schillinger
- Me Before You Is Missing Something Major: Author Jojo Moyes Doesn’t Mind – by Elise Taylor
- Why I Hate Jojo Moyes’ Me Before You – by Shane Clifton
- Why Are You Complaining? Some People Actually Feel That Way: A Critique of Me Before You – by CrippledScholar
- “Me Before You: The Fetishization of Disability – by Pretentious Best Friend
- Hollywood Promotes the Idea It Is Better to be Dead Than Disabled – by Dominick Evans
- Me Before Euthanasia – by Haley Mlotek
- Able-Bodied Actors and Disability Drag: Why Disabled Roles are Only For Disabled People – by Scott Jordan Harris
- Why is Hollywood still stubbornly casting non-disabled actors in disabled roles? – by S.E. Smith
- Actors With Disabilities In Big Roles? ‘We Don’t Have a Chance’ – by Karen Grigsby Bates
- Let Actors with Disabilities Play Characters with Disabilities – by Lennard Davis
- Media Roundup of Me Before You Criticism – by CrippledScholar
- “Me Before You” Film Panned by Not Dead Yet UK – Not Dead Yet UK
- “Me Before You” gets release date from Warner Bros. – by Anita Busch
- Mother Defends Rugby Suicide Son – BBC News UK
- Performers With Disabilities – Screen Actors’ Guild
- “Me Before You” Team on Understanding Will’s “Extreme” Decision – by Hilary Lewis