Warning: If you have seen any of the trailers for the film adaptation of the best-selling novel, then not much of the discussion below will be a surprise. If you have not read the book or seen the movie, you may consider some of the below discussion to be “spoilers”, in which case, I encourage you to revisit this post later. Otherwise, please read on.
I was at the box office buying tickets to see this movie with my best friend. Here’s how the exchange went down…
Me: You really should give away boxes of tissues with every ticket.
Cashier: You know, I actually don’t know what this movie is about. I know I should but there are so many movies out.
Me: It’s about this guy who was paralysed after an accident and decides he wants to die.
Cashier: Whoa! How is that a romantic comedy?
Me: Well, there’s this girl who gets hired to be his carer and once she finds out his plans, she is determined to change his mind and a lot of funny things happen in the meantime. But yes, it does also get very sad. I cried buckets when I read the book.
Cashier: Is there a happy ending?
Me: It depends on how you look at it…
First published in 2012, Me Before You by Jojo Moyes is told primarily from the viewpoint of Louisa Clark, a young woman in her late 20s who, having recently become unemployed in a small town when the cafe she worked in is closes down, finds a job as a carer for a quadriplegic man, Will Traynor.
Although she has no previous experience as a carer or working with people with disability, Louisa has run out of job options but manages to pass her job interview with Will’s mother – a magistrate – armed with nothing more than her bubbly personality.
The employment contract is for six months, as Mrs Traynor assures us, which sends us, the readers, a very clear message: there will be no one to care for after this period. As you would expect, there is no “instant bond” between Will and Lou. This is, after all, a man who has literally given up his will to live and just wants to survive his final months with as much dignity and as little fuss as possible. He is not interested in meeting new people, let alone making friends or falling in love. Lou just thinks Will is a man who is rich, entitled and generally rude and obnoxious, and she tells him as much.
After an initial awkward, getting-to-know-you period, Lou accidentally discovers Will’s deal with his parents in which he promises to stay alive for six months, after which they have promised to take him to Switzerland where assisted suicide is legal. Lou’s job, therefore, is more of someone on suicide watch than as a carer – a way to ensure Will sticks to his end of the bargain by not attempting suicide (again). When she finds out the truth, she quits her job because she has no desire to be part of this suicide pact but after a heart-to-heart talk with her sister, decides to try to use the remaining months of Will’s deal to convince him to change his mind by showing him all that he has to live for.
When I spoke to a friend who had already read the book about how I foresee the immense sadness that is to come in the following chapters while I read, her response was something like this: “But it’s what they do together in those final months that are so beautiful that will make you smile.”
And so, I read on, fully prepared for the inevitable, and yes, I did smile when Will takes Lou to her first classical music concert (in her sexy red dress) and when they twirl around on the dance floor to become the centre of attention, laughing drunkenly and joyously at the reception of the wedding between his former best friend and ex-girlfriend.
I will admit, I sobbed through the final third of the book as the end grew nearer and Lou’s desperation to find ways to change Will’s mind became a growing list of all the things we able-bodied people generally take for granted each day. When we research our holidays, “easy access to beach” usually means we can just stroll down from the hotel to where we can get sand between our toes, not “will the wheels on the wheelchair move in the sand?”.
Before I went to see the film, I read a couple of “reviews” online. They weren’t reviews so much as criticisms by some members of the disabled community slamming the film for casting beautiful, able-bodied actors, portraying a disabled person who sees no hope for living and would rather die than live in a wheelchair, completely dependant on others to serve his every need. Now, I may be equally criticised for defending the film and the book as I, too, am able-bodied and accept Will’s decision.
I do not pretend to know or understand what it must be like to live in a world where I cannot even scratch an itch on my nose, or brush a stray hair off my face if the wind blows in my direction. I wake up every morning and I roll out of bed, take a couple of steps into my en-suite bathroom and I can wash my face, brush my teeth, pee on my own and I can get dressed without anyone’s help. If I am hungry, I can get myself food and feed myself. I don’t need to wait for someone to help me.
I have seen the character of Will Traynor attacked for wanting to die, for not wanting to accept that he has lost all that he once was – the young, successful, athletic, adventure-loving type who loved taking risks and danger, the classic adrenaline-junkie. And after his accident, he is living in an refurbished annex to a castle, with around-the-clock care and has a wheelchair that allows him as much mobility as someone who cannot move his body from the neck down can have. Most people with similar disabilities have no such luxuries.
Will makes no bones about this being a selfish decision on his part. He knows his parents and his sister (who does not appear in the film adaptation) are upset about his decision. He knows it will cause them grief. And when he finally has that tough conversation with Lou, he tells her that nothing was ever going to change his mind, not even her love. He knows he is lucky to have the kind of medical care that most people cannot afford. However, he alone also knows the kind of physical pain he suffers every second of his life. He knows if he gets sick, his body does not have the immunity to fight back like it once did and the pain will become worse. He knows he can never experience all that he once had and all that he had once hoped to experience in the future. And dying a slow death is not what he wants.
Will tells Lou “You only get one life. It’s your duty to live it as fully as possible.” In saying this, he knows he has already lived his fullest. I don’t, for a single moment, believe that Will came to his decision on the spur of a moment. And while Lou thinks that she is spending Will’s final months showing him what he has to live for, it is actually Will who is changing Lou and showing her the world that she has been missing out on.
Jojo Moyes adapted her own novel very closely, leaving behind some small details which take nothing away from the main themes of the book. I would have liked to have seen a little mention of Lou’s backstory relating to the castle maze because I loved the scene where Will ultimately rescues her from her own demons and tells her not to let that incident in her youth to define her. The first time I read that part, I felt it a little ironic that a man who has let his wheelchair define who he is telling a woman not to let a “youthful indiscretion” (I am using this term to avoid spoiling the story) define her.
Most audiences will know Emilia Clarke best as the Mother of Dragons in Game of Thrones who is the polar opposite of the bumbling, naive and helpless woman that Louisa Clark is, but as we have all been finding out, Lou is as close to the real Emilia as we are likely to get – all chatty and bubbly. Sam Claflin has gone from the tough action hero Finnick Odair in The Hunger Games to being bound to a wheelchair as Will Traynor. As someone who has trouble sitting still for longer than five minutes, I have immense admiration for Sam’s ability to hold himself still in his portrayal of Will.
Having already cried watching the trailer for this film, I knew what to expect going in. Armed with a big box of Kleenex provided by my best friend, I was surprised to find she started crying before I did…as did a few of the women sitting behind us. By the end of the film, we were embarrassingly trying to hide the scrunched up tissues in our bags as the lights went up.
My two cents’ worth
Euthanasia. Assisted suicide. Call it what you want, it means death by choice. I am Catholic and I know the Catholic Church does not condone this. I used to believe in this doctrine unquestioningly. In the twenty-first century, with all the technology and medical advancements and such, we are being told that we could live well over 100 years old. I have longevity on my father’s side so this could well be true for me, assuming no accidents or other calamities befalling me. But if I were to be incapacitated in some way, mentally or physically, would I still want to be alive?
The night that I finished reading Me Before You, I could not sleep. I went to bed thinking about how this fictional story plays out as a daily reality for so many people. And I cried. Actually, I sobbed. I had no idea I would be affected this way. I remembered the last time I saw my grandmother, lying in a hospital bed in her old age, not recognising us but wanting to die. “Let me die!” she kept repeating. I told myself she was hallucinating. A week earlier, her body had started to reject any food and now, her mind was rejecting everything else. Later, she would beg for anyone nearby to kill her. Her mind and body finally came to rest four weeks after she was hospitalised.
I know my grandmother’s passing is not the same story. But it makes me think about how much pain a person can bear before they decide death is better than anything else. What is it like to be handed a death sentence? To know that you will be dead soon? I am not afraid of death, just the process of dying. When my grandfather passed away, we all agreed he was “one lucky bastard” – he died in his sleep, taking a nap after a hearty Sunday lunch. I know death is inevitable but that is the kind of death most of us would wish for.
I recently attended a talk by Sr Helen Prejean, better known as the nun portrayed by Susan Sarandon in the 1995 film Dead Man Walking based upon her book of the same name. Without going into the details of that book or film, I am interested in Sr Helen’s documentation of the kind of thoughts that were going through the mind of a convicted killer on death row, and most importantly, the mind of a man facing death. Is it any different to someone who has been handed a different kind of death sentence – such as a terminal illness?
Australian television/radio presenter, Andrew Denton, recently produced a podcast called Better Off Dead in which he explores the subject of euthanasia in Australia. He interviewed people from different aspects of this very difficult subject including those who are choosing the same path as Will Traynor did. I admit, it was extremely difficult to listen to these stories as they consider their decision from every angle – their own “selfish” desire to end their pain, the feelings of their loved ones, the possible repercussions on them and anyone else close to them.
I don’t believe there is a right or a wrong answer. It is a moral dilemma that one does not take lightly. I cannot even begin to imagine how I would respond or behave if this ever became an issue in my life. I do not judge others for the decisions they make. And I ask that anyone going to see the film likewise leave their judgements behind.