For those who have neither read the book nor seen the upcoming film ‘Me Before You,’ here is a quick synopsis of the movie, which is confusingly being dubbed “the romantic film event of the year!” Personally, I do not find it romantic in the slightest.
The story centres around Will (played by the decidedly able-bodied Sam Claflin), a rich young guy whose life changes drastically when he is involved in a road accident, and loses the use of his limbs. Devastated, he struggles to adjust to his new life as a quadriplegic and contemplates suicide. In an attempt to cheer him up and save his life, Will’s mother hires chirpy, quirky Louise (played by Emilia Clarke) as his new carer. Will and Louise fall in love, but Will still feels life with a disability is not worth living, and goes to Switzerland where he can be assisted with his suicide. He leaves working-class Louise a large amount of money in his will, so that she can “live well.”
The film has proved extremely controversial due to its negative portrayal of disabled people and their lives, and it has irked me too. Unlike Will, I have the use of my limbs, albeit sometimes limited. Like Will, however, my life changed drastically too, when the genetic condition I had had all my life suddenly became symptomatic in my teens. I went from being a healthy, active teenager to a disabled girl who uses a walking stick to get around.
Ultimately, the disabled community’s problem with the film lies in the way that it represents Will’s suicide. His decision to end his own life is presented as a rational choice; the natural reaction to disability. While Louise and Will’s mother try to show him that life is still worth living by taking him on outings and holidays, they never attempt to get him proper psychological help. Will’s main problem here is depression, but his family and the woman he loves both resign themselves to his suicidal thoughts, as though they were the natural and inevitable result of being disabled.
This does disabled people a great disservice; this assumes that all our lives are worthless and unlivable, when actually many of us live purposeful, fun lives. While being disabled, I have been able to go to university, complete an internship, and work as a columnist for this esteemed student paper. I have made friends, taken up new illness-friendly hobbies, and become a stronger person.
I am not suggesting that adjusting to life with a disability is easy. Learning to live with my new body has been the hardest thing I have ever done, and I needed a lot of counselling and therapy to dispel the negative thought cycles which usually began with “you’re useless. You can’t do anything.” So I know exactly where Will is coming from. However, if suicide wasn’t presented as a sad inevitability for disabled people, he and others like him may have been better equipped to get help.
The film lacks a key factor which improves the lives and dispositions of many disabled people; hope. I don’t mean hope for a cure for our conditions. Like Will, I know I’ll never get “better.” I know that life as a disabled person can seem like one long fight after another, or one long, dark tunnel towards the grave. But there is light at the end of the tunnel. There is light when you find the right support group, and meet people in the same position as you. There is light when you find new ways to enjoy old hobbies, and creative solutions to the problems caused by your limitations. Above all, there is light to be found in love. In the film, Will cannot see that light, and love alone cannot fix his problems, but that does not mean that it is fair of the author or producers to present suicide as the solution.
The second problem I have with ‘Me Before You’ is that it presents Will’s suicide as a romantic choice. It suggests that the most romantic thing a disabled person can do for the person they love most is to die. Here is what I have learned as a disabled girl in a relationship with an active, able-bodied guy; being disabled isn’t the worst thing ever. Being in love with a disabled person isn’t the worst thing ever either. As long as my boyfriend and I focus on the things that we can do together, and don’t linger too long on the milestones or activities which are not for us any more, we have a perfectly happy, normal relationship. The best, most romantic choice that I can make for him is to be with him, because I make him happy.
Contrary to what the author and filmmakers of ‘Me Before You’ want you to think, disabled people can actually care for able-bodied people too, and make them happy in ways which don’t involve large cheques in wills. Not every relationship in our community is characterised by an unequal burden of care. To present Will’s suicide as a romantic act which sets his lover free is both dishonest and dangerous. It insinuates that disabled people are only burdens on their loved ones, and that a relationship with a disabled person is just a tiring and frustrating experience until they inevitably die because death is better than disability. It devalues the lives of disabled people with little more subtlety than a speech by Iain Duncan Smith.
As a disabled person, I want to see fewer films and books like ‘Me Before You’ and more films like ‘The Theory of Everything,’ the acclaimed Stephen Hawking biopic. While it did portray Hawking’s Motor Neuron Disease with gut-wrenching honesty it also portrayed Hawking’s amazing achievements, and his accomplished life as a scientist, husband and father. It demonstrated that there is so much hope for disabled people. There is life after life-altering injuries or diagnoses. Sadly, ‘Me Before You’ has missed out on the opportunity to demonstrate that hope.
Someone, please, give me a rom-com with disabled leads instead of this mushy, patronising and dishonest representation of life after disability.