‘Me Before You’ Sparks Controversy Over Message About Disability
The film version of JoJo Moyes' bestselling 2012 novel Me Before You, adapted to screenplay by the author herself, earned a respectable-if-not-dazzling #3 box office slot in its June 3 opening weekend. But the tearjerker is also earning sharp criticism from the disability rights community, both for its casting choice and the story's perceived underlying message (warning: some plot spoilers below).
Sam Claflin (the Hunger Games franchise's Finnick) plays Will, a dour-tempered former playboy who was rendered quadriplegic after an accident. Game of Thrones' Emilia Clarke plays Louisa, the adrift but plucky woman hired by his parents to help his nurse attend to him. Despite Will's initially prickly reception, the two fall in love — but in a plot turn fully intended to be gut-wrenching (the promo team reportedly handed out Kleenex packets at advance screenings), Will follows through with his original plan to seek assisted suicide at a Swiss clinic. He leaves a chunk of his money to Lou so she can "live boldly" in economic freedom, and this sequence of events has left some wondering what the takeaway is supposed to be.
"The message of this movie is that it’s better for this person to die in order to be of service to her than for him to live,” actor Zack Weinstein, who is himself a quadriplegic due to an accident, told the Hollywood Reporter. "Are you using [Will’s disability] to be emotionally manipulative? That has its place, but it's very difficult to watch the facts of my life being used as the vehicle for that."
Weinstein isn't the only one who feels this way, with a segment of Twitter users questioning why audiences are supposed to easily accept yet another negative and unrealistic representation of disabled people. They cleverly revamped the film's hashtag as #MeBeforeEuthanasia, and in some cases, they've taken their message of awareness to theaters.
In addition to wondering if their was even a disabled person consulting on-set, disability rights advocates have also questioned why a disabled person wasn't hired for the role — particularly when Sam Claflin is himself not an A-lister but a still-rising star. But even those pleased with the care Claflin took with the role worry what message the average filmgoer may absorb from watching a handsome, wealthy quadriplegic man in love decide his life is ultimately burdensome.
“Usually all I worry about is why they didn't cast someone in a wheelchair, but this is a much bigger issue,” Hollywood agent Gail Williamson, who oversees a roster of 120 actors with disabilities, told THR after watching Me Before You.
"The film is beautiful and the quirky love story is adorable, and I believe the public can be drawn in and not even realize the message the film is giving. How many people who see this film will leave with a new perception that people with spinal cord injuries are not of value?"
Director Thea Sharrock (who is not a disabled person, herself) has responded to the "disability snuff film" accusations, telling THR that she "didn't quite anticipate" the reaction that people in a wheelchair might have to the film's ending.
The disappointing thing is when people make a protest when they haven’t either read the book or seen the film. I have no problem with people seeing this film and not liking it for 101 different reasons; you go into every project with that as a possibility. I understood going into it how vulnerable a topic it is and susceptible to very strong opinions.
When asked what she'd say to critics who find Me Before You's message offensive to those with disabilities, she suggests that they just don't get it.
"It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of what the message is," Sharrock said.
Read tweets from those questioning Me Before You's representation of life in a wheelchair, including one from a paralyzed 11-year-old girl who wonders why "Hollywood wants me dead," below.
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