I am about the spoil the novel Me Before You and inevitably, the movie adaptation. I also intend to state my opinions and hopefully open a dialogue about the events of the novel in lieu of its controversial nature. These opinions have been made through time spent working with and supporting individuals with disabilities and not my own personal experiences as a relatively able-bodied individuals. Let it be known that I believe only the individual is responsible for deciding what their disability or their experiences mean to them; these are merely opinions made based on curiosity and second-hand experience as a friend and trained source of support. I do believe Moyes representation of individuals with disabilities to be flawed in more ways than one, but I also believe her work leads us to ask questions of ourselves and of others that are important and deserve to be considered. Thank you for reading!
One of my favorite things about summer break is that I have so much more time to read things that I actually want to read, as opposed to assigned readings and script memorization. I have quite a few books squirreled away for when the mood strikes, but in typical book worm fashion I am easy to entice to continue to buy books even with dusty, unread novels waiting for me at home. The recent release of the movie Me Before You, based on the novel by JoJo Moyes, was one of the first novels to catch my eye upon coming home from college. As a psychology major and someone who has worked closely beside individuals with disabilities in the past, Me Before You's apparently romantic plot about a quadriplegic man interested me immediately. Who doesn't love a nice, inclusive romantic drama every now and then?
Having just watched the movie You're Not You on Netflix (starring Hilary Swank, do yourself a favor and watch!) about a woman with ALS, I was prepared for the happy tears and gut-wrenching sobs, but what I was not prepared for was the large amount of backlash Me Before You had received before it even hit theaters. I'm not someone to be deterred from reading or watching something after hearing spoilers—if that were the case, Tumblr would have already ruined just about everything Literary or otherwise I could get my hands on. I immediately rushed to investigate why what appeared to be such a promising plot could have such a negative reaction.
I'll admit that I was not as surprised as I should have been to hear of the story's less than joyful ending: Will Traynor, a man with a C4-5 spinal cord injury, decides to end his life despite being wealthy enough to live what would be considered comfortably and having found love and support. Naturally, I do not condone suicide nor or the support of suicide in any way, but having worked with advocates in the past I understand that the choices one makes for themselves may not always be the ones we agree with. One of the biggest parts of advocacy is learning to accept that sometimes you have to defend decisions that you do not necessarily believe are the correct ones. If an individual with a disability is able to advocate for themselves, their word is law; I believe this learned understanding may have allowed me to be a bit more sympathetic towards the tension created by what Will Traynor wanted to do.
I once knew a man whose doctors suggested he not eat solid foods because, due to his disability, he had a very high risk of choking. Now, this man was almost endearingly stubborn in more ways than one and was absolutely adamant that he make choices for himself, medical or otherwise—as he should. However, in his case, choosing to eat his beloved hot dogs sliced and not puréed meant that any day he could be sent to the emergency room because of asphyxiation, and he was more than once. As much as a hassle as it was for those who worked alongside him, his fellow advocates defended his right to make this decision because it was no one's to make but his. He should be able to eat what he wanted when he wanted it and how just as anyone else in this world should have the right to do.
Of course, I do not mean to compare the eating of hot dogs to medically assisted suicide, but there is an important lesson to be learned in the realm of advocacy. If you are able to advocate for yourself, there should not be a single person out there who can tell you what your quality of living is or what it means to you. If someone signs the paperwork stating that they are not to be resuscitated, nobody can challenge that decision—not even a medical professional. Certainly this would upset those close to that individual, but at the end of the day the only person who can decide how and if they continue to live is themselves.
In the movie You're Not You, as I mentioned before, the woman with ALS does indeed decide that she does not want to be resuscitated. While her family tries to fight this, claiming her illness has made her unable to make such a decision for herself, ultimately the woman receives her wish and is able to pass away in her home while in her own bed. It isn't pretty, and surely it is excruciatingly painful, but so had been her life, even more so each time she was brought to the hospital only to extend the life of a rapidly deteriorating body. I do not in any way wish to undermine the blessing that is the extra time one might have with their family thanks to medical technology, but I also wholeheartedly believe that a person can and should be able to determine when they have had enough. While some people wonder how they will go on without someone, that someone could be suffering greatly.
In Will Traynor's case, the man was already suffering greatly. I personally don't think the book touched upon it enough, but Will's injury left him in a great deal of pain nearly all the time, which is not always typical of spinal injuries. He was fortunate enough to have the best of everything, and even then Will had to take several medications just to be able to sit in his chair, not to mention that he risked a life-threatening illness any time someone so much as changed his catheter a few minutes off schedule. This is not to say that Will couldn't have continued to live a relatively happy and healthy life, because I absolutely believe in trying to find a way to make anyone's quality of living better, but it cannot be denied that even waking up in the morning was an incredible weight to bear for Will Traynor.
Do I agree with his decision? Absolutely not. Do I understand why he made it? Yes, and I would defend his right to make said decision because it is his and only his right to do so. Will was of sound mind when the decision was made and thought for a long time on it; this was not a decision that was taken lightly or made spur of the moment. Even the love of a lifetime could not sway him from this decision, which I believe speaks novels about his own pain and discomfort.
Understanding advocacy and learning to embrace what we can't comprehend or get on board with are skills that are important not just within the community of individuals with disabilities but on a wider, more general scale too. They are skills that help to empower yourself and others while being respectful of both sides of any conflict, something I believe that everyone could benefit from.
With that elephant in the room having been dealt with, I will also say that I don't exactly agree with the direction the movie was taken in. The movie's focus is entirely upon the romantic aspect of the book. Sure, relationships can be important and life-altering, but they are not the end-all-be-all of a person's life, as Will Traynor's decision shows. The most important thing to be taken from Will and Louisa's relationship is what they learn about each other and themselves through knowing each other, not necessarily about cute outings and what was shown in the trailer as a romantic getaway to a tropical island. Never mind the fact that there's a third character lingering around nearly at all times encouraging them both to better themselves and that the novel itself is more about self-discovery more than anything else. The movie was unfortunately advertised as no more than a budding romance, which I believe strips all of the importance and meaning behind Will and Louisa's interactions and the choices that are made in lieu of them.
Criticisms have been made about Louisa, painting her as a plot device and nothing more—the able-bodied girl who gets to "live boldly" (as the advertisements read) while Will chooses to end his life. However, the Louisa in the novel leaves much more to be desired. She is stunning and eccentric with her own misgivings and insecurities. Louisa is strong, but selfless enough to grant Will's final wish by accompanying him before his death despite her own wishes and opinions on the matter because she comes to understand what the ability to make that choice means to Will. Most importantly, she is human and a well developed one at that.
I do not believe it to be any fault of the actors, but it is clear that the movie versions of these characters have faded into watered-down versions of what they were originally meant to be for the sake of enhancing the romantic aspect of the plot. I do not think it is fair, however, to equate her to a mere plot device, as I believe her to be a rich main character in a world that could certainly use more examples of strong, empowered leading ladies.
The movie also leaves out an important moment in Louisa's past for the sake of furthering the romantic plot, acting as if Louisa's sexual assault never happened as was also a plot device, which I find wildly inappropriate and unnecessary. There are others who might argue that the sexual assault itself was wildly inappropriate and unnecessary, but given the more recent events of the Stanford case and the lenient rulings against Brock Turner, I do not find including sexual assault to be misplaced at all. It is all too common and society continues to allow women to define themselves by what happened to them rather than support them, something that Louisa learns to work past. If anything, I believe it absolutely rude to diminish her sexual assault to a plot device to bring them together when so many people today face such a tragedy. When the terrifyingly high numbers become a thing of the past, then I will believe it too be an all too conveniently placed plot point. Maybe.
In short, I can completely understand where the movie comes off as incredibly ableist because ultimately, it does not live up to the novel, which I find interesting considering that Moyes herself helped in the adaptation. This story is one that could have been told and told well without being sold as the next romantic tragedy we never asked for.
However, I don't believe that Moyes is an insufferable ableist for writing this story. Do I think that we need more positive examples of living with a disability in the media? Without a doubt! I believe this is why they chose to advertise the movie in such a way, despite it being such an inaccurate depiction of what was to come. It is especially unfortunate that such a story be adapted for film at a point in time in which we are sorely lacking in positive representation of that community, as it certainly sticks out like a sore thumb that way and comes off as dreary and hopeless—the exact opposite of what I perceived this book to be. In my eyes, this novel told a story about struggles; the struggle to find oneself, to find meaning and more difficultly, to find the strength to accept decisions we may not exactly agree with.
While I do not agree with the decision Will Traynor ultimately made, I respect his ability to choose for himself what would become of him, just as I respect Moyes for being able to illustrate the difficulty in making such a decision for ones' self and how it also effects those around them. I do not believe this story, or at the very least the novel, was an attempt at glorifying suicide by any means. Me Before You did not have a happy or particularly hopeful ending, despite Louisa inheriting a sizable fortunate from Will. I don't even blame Will for leaving the money to her, as his parents weren't exactly hurting for money in the first place and as we have come to learn, he did love her.
The movie may make it seem as such, Will does not die just so Louisa can live a full life, as his choice was made long before he had even met Louisa. Nobody was better off without Will and certainly no one was happier, at least, not the people who cared about him. Ultimately, the one who understood him the best—Louisa—was the only one able to even come close to accepting why Will chose death for himself instead of life, and she was the only person close to him who could respect that decision. What's important is that it happens anyway of Will's own accord. In fact, there is even a court ruling after his death explaining how no one can be held accountable but Will, as everyone else fought so strongly against it that there was simply no evidence against them. Moyes does not create a happy scenario for those he left behind and she reflects several times on the research Louisa has done to learn how Will could continue to live happily and healthy. Everyone he knew wanted him to live, and he had the ability to do so. This was never a story condoning what he did, but rather, supporting his right to choose.
In any other case, someone might not have made Will's decision had they met Louisa and found someone to make their life "worthwhile". However, seeing as I am an abled-bodied person, it is not my right to decide if Will should end his life or not no matter what other opportunities he has to continue living comfortably. Nobody else has the right to decide the worth or meaning of someone else's life, no matter what's their level of abled-bodiedness is. We cannot be upset that Will was not the person we wanted him to turn out to be because that is the nature of life.
The way this book was adapted did not come at a particularly opportune time. I am sure it might have been better received if there were a much more positive representation of the disabled community within the media, but I don't think that because the timing was poor and the adaptation insensitive that we should completely throw away the novel in its entirety. Though it may not be the story we need right now, it is a story we need nonetheless. The movie may be a bust, but with an open and respectful mind, the novel is a must!