When I heard the premise for the film “Me Before You,” I didn’t hesitate to cross this one off my list. As an entertainment journalist and amateur writer, I try not to be close-minded when it comes to what movies I see. I even saw the Adam Sandler flick “Pixels” last summer.
Yet as a physically disabled adult, I refuse to see this film and have made my criticisms of it vocal because I’m sick and tired of Hollywood’s narrow representation of the disabled community.
The film, as well as the novel it’s based on, tells the sappy romance story of recently paralyzed rich dude Will (Sam Claflin) and his caregiver Louise (Emilia Clarke). Beyond being his caregiver, however, Louise has an objective to fill the void in Will’s life left by his tragic accident. Despite having a castle more luxurious than Donald Trump’s estates combined, a charming personality and a woman who loves him, Will eventually decides that the burden of his disability makes life too unbearable and commits suicide.
Now, if filmmakers wanted to make a movie that examined the hardships of living with a physical disability, I would be all for it. As much as I’m not a fan of disability being automatically linked with misery, I’m almost more turned off by films in which the disabled character is a static, unflinchingly moral figure whose sole purpose is to “inspire” the protagonist. That kind of gross sentimentality is equally abhorrent.
Yet with “Me Before You,” screenwriter Jojo Moyes, who also wrote the novel, has crafted a story that is as far away from a grounded portrayal of life with a physical disability as possible. It is instead more akin to the likes of some perverted fantasy. I’ve met numerous other disabled people over the past 20 years, some of whom are paraplegics, and none of them is or was a Royal Englishman whose life would be best depicted by a pretty boy from “The Hunger Games” franchise.
Moyes herself is the mother of a deaf child and has even claimed in interviews that it was her frustration with other people’s attitudes toward her child that prompted her to write this book. If that is true, then why in the world would she write something that does nothing but reinforce widespread stereotypes?
A quote that was even more staggering was one by the film’s director Thea Sharrock. Speaking with The Guardian, Sharrock said at one point: “My nephew is in a wheelchair, and I hope he will be pleased to see this shown in a way that does not make audiences too uncomfortable. If we had shown Will being taken in and out of his chair, or put in a hoist over a bath, the impression we would give is of difficulty. I wanted to make it more normal.”
Now, I might have to depend on my caregivers to get me in and out of my chair and bathe me, but last time I checked there was nothing abnormal about having to take a shower or get dressed in the morning. In fact, I welcome the opportunity to answer questions about how I do everyday activities, as it helps educate the public to things they would otherwise be unaware of. I’m not saying I go around telling people how I urinate, but if you ask me an intelligent question, I will answer it.
In a Facebook post last week regarding this film and others like it, I said: “Why is it that when a film deals with a disabled character, their disability (which is almost always paraplegia, as Hollywood likes to ignore the hundreds of other physical and mental conditions that exist) must automatically be the focal point of the narrative? Why can’t we have strong disabled protagonists whose stories don’t revolve around how sad their lives are?”
Who knows. Maybe Hollywood will eventually get the memo.
Kevin Schaefer, an N.C. State student and entertainment critic, lives in Cary. He has used a wheelchair since he was 2.