This morning, I got an e-mail from a PR agency for the new (as we go to
press) tearjerker Me Before You. The film stars Emilia Clarke and Sam Claflin as polar-opposite
young adults. She’s quirky and
fun-loving and beautiful. He’s melancholy
and rich and beautiful. So they
fall rapturously in love and live happily
ever after in his beautiful country
castle. The end.
Because — gasp! — there’s a twist:
He’s in a wheelchair after an accident
and is paralyzed from the neck down.
She’s hired as his caregiver, her quirkiness having eliminated all other job prospects. Her joy
for life is infectious, they fall rapturously in love and live happily ever after in his beautiful
country castle. The end.
He is in a wheelchair, she is his caregiver, but he has opted for physician-assisted suicide
rather than stay in a wheelchair. She wins his heart, he wins hers, they enjoy adventures
and…spoiler alert… he decides to die anyway so he can leave his fortune to her.
Oh, where to start?
How does a guy with such a high-level spinal cord injury — Claflin portrays him as
unable to turn his head — drive his power chair with a hand-operated joystick? Why at
one point is he sitting with perfectly upright posture in a standard slingback manual chair?
Why did Warner Bros. (or whoever was in charge of casting) choose an able-bodied
actor instead of one who truly knows what paralysis is like?
But back to my e-mail. The PR firm generously offered me the chance to purchase
a transcript of an interview with Mr. Claflin that I could fashion into a story. Among the
talking points in the transcript is “how difficult it was to act as if he was paraplegic.”
Well first off, it’s clear even from the trailer that the character in the movie is supposed
to have quadriplegia, not paraplegia. He can’t even turn his head!
More importantly, why would a film portray using a wheelchair as a fate worse than
death? Why suggest that people who use wheelchairs have lost all capacity for joy and are
better off killing themselves?
When Claflin’s character, Will, says Paris is the most perfect place in the world, Clarke’s
character, Lou, suggests they hop a train and go. But Will laments: “I want to be in Paris as
me. The old me.”
Lou should have said, “Well, I’d like to go to Paris with a boyfriend who’s more than just
a flat stereotype, but you’re what the screenwriters gave me.”
And to the PR firm, I said, “Multiple people who use wheelchairs have told me that if
they could have one wish, it would not be to leave their wheelchairs behind. But they
would spend more time with their kids, be more adventurous in their careers or travel, or
try harder to make relationships work. Assistive technology isn’t who we are; it’s a tool we
use, like a smartphone or a car.”
I suppose movie-goers would be bored by a film about a young man in a wheelchair
getting on just fine with his life. But I shudder at Me Before You’s message. We all deserve a
much more informed one.