I Disagree with Me Before You but Would Still Recommend It

By Friday, July 29, 2016 , , ,

Emilia Clarke as Louisa Clark and Sam Claflin as Will Traynor in the 2016 film adaptation of Me Before You
Photo Credit: Alpha Coders
{Warning: Thorough spoilers from Me Before You ahead} 

If you’ve been on the Internet at all over the last five months, you’ve likely seen approximately twelve million reviews on Jojo Moyes’s book Me Before You and its recent film adaptation starring Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin. I read the book at the beginning of this year, wrote some initial thoughts on it here, and have now also seen the movie. Once the film trailer was released, the web virtually exploded with criticism of the story from Christian and secular groups alike. Much of the criticism is well-founded, and yet, much of it also bothered me. This is my attempt to lay out more detailed thoughts on the story. I hold to the view that it’s still worthwhile, though I disagree with many aspects of it. I’m still glad I read the book and watched the movie and will likely revisit both. Here’s my take on everything, whatever it’s worth, and why I still recommend the book and film. 

The Story 

For the few who possibly have still not read about the storyline, Me Before You centers on Louisa Clark, an optimistic, vibrant young woman who takes a job as caregiver-companion to Will Traynor, who has been in a wheelchair for about two years after a motorcycle accident left him a quadriplegic. 

Will used to be a cutthroat business executive, worldwide traveler, and extreme sportsman. By the time Lou arrives, he doesn’t see much point to life anymore. He spends most days sitting at home in his wheelchair and spitefully mocking anyone who tries to engage him. But unlike others, Lou isn’t afraid to bluntly call him out when he’s being nasty, which in turn helps Will to look outside his own misery. The primary tension arises when Louisa discovers Will is planning to end his life via physician-assisted suicide. This understandably horrifies her and she sets out to show Will that life is still worth living.

Photo Credit: Alpha Coders

The Controversy 

If you didn’t already know or guess, at the story’s end, Will does go through with his plans, much to Louisa’s grief. For this, the book and film have been scathingly criticized, particularly by disability groups and Christian organizations. And I want to make clear that I don’t agree with the conclusion. I wish it had ended differently and will always be conflicted about it. But I still liked many things about the story and have felt that many criticisms of it have not taken the whole narrative into account. Here are the most common feelings I’ve read: 

- It sends the message that you are better off dead than living with a disability. 
- It conveys that disabled people are an awkward discomfort and burden to the able-bodied. 
- It romanticizes physician-assisted suicide and heralds it as a noble, brave, and sacrificial act. 

While I agree that there are elements of truth to these claims, I wouldn’t slap them down as all-encompassing labels on the story. I believe that to do that would be to dismiss many narrative complexities and to shortchange Jojo Moyes’s writing. Yes, she was obviously pushing an agenda, but I can’t see that she intended readers to walk away with clear-cut answers to every possible question or scenario involving physician-assisted suicide. 

How I Interpreted the Story 

It’s important to note that Scripture quickly renders physician-assisted suicide indefensible. In Me Before You, the debate comes down to Will’s choice (more on that soon). It’s his life and his body, so it ought to be his decision, the story argues. But the Bible counteracts this idea because it says that our bodies are not our own (1 Corinthians 6) and that every life, regardless of its independence or perceived usefulness, possesses inherent value because the sovereign Creator God has granted it purpose and His own dignity (Genesis 1-2, Psalm 139). These are the ultimate reasons why the story’s ending disappointed me and left me wanting. 

Having said that, Jojo Moyes was clearly not operating from a Christian perspective as she wrote Me Before You, so as I read, I could not hold her to Scripture like I would a Christian writer. I’d certainly use Bible verses now while discussing the book or film with someone, but as I’ve often heard it said, we should expect non-Christians to act like non-Christians, authors being no exception. 

But all that aside, I still found Me Before You an extremely layered story that’s supposed to be complicated and make you squirm. I think it’s particularly unfair to say it romanticizes or applauds Will’s actions, or that it conveys death is better than disability because it’s written in such a way that the reader is meant to be rooting for Louisa the whole time, hoping along with her that Will changes his mind and sees that his life is still worth living, though it will be unavoidably different and perhaps shorter than an average one in the long run. And Louisa does break through Will’s misery and self-pity in many ways, making the conclusion all the more heartbreaking. The moment he tells her he’s sticking to the plan is possibly the most gut-wrenching and frustrating point in the book and film alike. Louisa weeps uncontrollably and rages at Will, ending the exchange by shamelessly cussing him out. And I agreed with her: 

Don’t say another word. You are so selfish, Will. So stupid…is that all you can say to me? I tore my heart out in front of you. And all you can say is, “No, you’re not enough for me. And now I want you to come watch the worst thing you can possibly imagine.” The thing I have dreaded ever since I first found out about it. Do you have any idea what you are asking of me? (Chapter 23) 

And many readers no doubt echo her sentiments. Louisa has done so much for Will and loves him deeply, but he outright dismisses her feelings. Him in the wheelchair isn’t the real him, Will argues. Life can’t be as big as it once was and he insists that anything less than that is not enough for him. He refuses to entertain the possibility of what could be simply because he can’t imagine it will ever measure up to what used to be. He says he can’t be the kind of man who “just accepts” and emphasizes that in the long run, she will be better off without having to be “tied” to him. And it was easy for me (and others I’ve talked to) to see that as terribly selfish, not brave or sacrificial.

But even so, the book seemed to argue that at the end of the day, personal choice had the final say. Will’s kind nurse Nathan particularly drove this point home in a grim exchange with Louisa: 

He can’t bear it. I’ve sat there with him and there is nothing I can say to the guy, nothing that is going to make it any better… and although there is nothing I’d like more in the world than for the big guy to be happy, I-I can’t judge him for what he wants to do. It’s his choice. It should be his choice… I want him to live if he wants to live. If he doesn’t, then by forcing him to carry on, you, me – no matter how much we love him – we become just another sh**ty bunch of people taking away his choices. (Chapter 22) 

Choice. That was what I felt Moyes was arguing for more than anything else. We’re quite naturally heartbroken and conflicted over Will’s loss, but in the end, she wants us to respect someone’s choice to end his or her life if that’s what they want. I can’t agree with this point of view, but I also didn’t think Moyes demeaned disability in itself at all. If anything, she highlights that the disabled are still normal people and deserve to be treated as such. As Louisa begins caring for Will, she realizes how insensitive and needlessly uncomfortable the general public can be towards the disabled:

[With “working-class” people,] I had observed a few basic routines as far as Will was concerned. Most would stare. A few might smile sympathetically, express sympathy, or ask me in a stage whisper what had happened. I was often tempted to respond, “Unfortunate falling-out with MI6,” just to see their reaction, but I never did. 
Here’s the thing with middle-class people. They pretend not to look, but they do. They’re too polite to actually stare. Instead, they do this weird thing of catching sight of Will in their field of vision and then determinedly not looking at him. Until he’s gone past, at which point their gaze flickers toward him, even while they remain in conversation with someone else. They won’t talk about him though. Because that would be rude. (Chapter 12) 

 Photo Credit: Alpha Coders

Louisa – and by extension, the audience – sees how patronized Will feels because other characters either jump in with supposed “solutions” for his life or awkwardly tiptoe around him as if he were a different species. But Louisa learns to see past the wheelchair to the person in it – she does her best to help him however she’s able, but she’s also not afraid to tell him when he’s being horrible. For me, this aspect of the story was actually a good and helpful reminder for how we ought to view the disabled and stand up for them. But according to Moyes, giving them choices – even the choice to end their lives – is part of treating them with respect, and that’s obviously where I must differ. 

What I’ve Learned From Criticisms 

As I’ve mentioned, though I agreed with some criticisms of the book and film, many of the more disdainful reviews irritated me. But I did try to remain open-minded and I read many of them, particularly trying to listen to opinions from disabled groups. The primary concept I’ve gleaned from the negative opinions is that the author likely created Will to simply push her agenda. I’ve been sharply reminded that he is not a fair or accurate portrayal of all or even the majority of disabled people, and I’d now give that caution when recommending Me Before You. There are a few other disabled voices in the story, mainly from an online support group that Louisa joins in order to research and ask advice from other quadriplegics. However, they are given little stage time, so Will is the story’s primary example of a disabled person, and I was reminded to take his perspective with a grain of salt. 

My Conclusion and Why I Still Loved It 

And yet, overall, I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy Me Before You. I enjoyed it immensely, in fact. Jojo Moyes is a talented writer and created interesting, dynamic characters. Her dialogue is snappy, fun, entertaining, and fast-paced. Though I cried in frustration and sadness at the end of the book and the movie, I laughed out loud through the first three-quarters of both. Louisa and Will were immediately likable, even when they annoyed me. Louisa’s larger-than-life personality charmed me – she’s awkward, klutzy, and joyful. Will’s sarcastic humor and dry mockery of Louisa’s scrapes had me rolling with laughter. Their exchanges are hilarious because they make fun of each other and they both have a knack for clever, witty one-liners. 

In short, I found these two lead characters delightful and I wanted to spend time with them. Though the ending was disappointing, I’m glad I “knew” them. And the film only heightened my enjoyment of them, as Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin turned in performances both weighty and charming that also packed emotional punches in the bargain.

 Photo Credit: Alpha Coders

What’s more, I appreciated Me Before You because it made me think. Even if I don’t agree with its stance, I can usually value any story that unflinchingly tackles a difficult subject and makes me think about it for weeks afterwards. Me Before You definitely did that for me, considering I’m still thinking about it six months after first reading it. It’s healthy to read and watch stories that make you think about tough issues, and this one accomplished that well for me. 

And I’d say this story is actually beneficial for Christians in particular to ponder. Will Traynor’s hopelessness in the story provides a sharp contrast to our eternal security. As I read the book, I kept thinking of people who have become blessings to others not in spite of their disabilities, but because of them. Joni Eareckson Tada, Jay and Katherine Wolf, and Kara Tippetts were the primary people on my mind – all of them endured or are enduring conditions seen as terrifying by worldly standards, but they’ve courageously used their stories to reach millions to say that there is hope. And Me Before You made me all the more grateful for that eternal hope I have in Christ. Will Traynor pins his happiness on earthly life, reminding me that many people do put that kind of stock into earthly life when they don’t have hope of a better life to come. I’m grateful that I do have that hope, and thus don’t have to look to this imperfect world to deliver the fulfillment we long for.

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