The release of “Me Before You” has been met with a firestorm of criticism from the disabilities community. Based on on the bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes, the film tells the story of Will Traynor, a wealthy, handsome businessman paralyzed after a motorbike accident and Louisa Clark, a pretty yet provincial young woman, hired as his caregiver. Will, played by Sam Clafin of “The Hunger Games” fame and Louisa, played by Emilia Clarke of “Game of Thrones,” eventually fall in love. Unfortunately, that’s not where the story ends.
Why are people with disabilities and their allies up in arms? There are several reasons:
1. The role of Will Traynor is played by an actor without a physical disability
Given the paucity of roles for actors with disabilities, many in the disabilities community are incensed by the fact that someone with quadriplegia was not cast in the high profile role.
“The casting of non-disabled actors in disabled roles is pervasive across the industry, despite the fact that there are numerous talented disabled actors languishing without work,” writes S.E. Smith for Care2. “Seeing non-disabled people represent the disability experience is offensive, especially when the experience being depicted is itself so offensive.”
2. The film’s depiction of life with disability is extremely negative
Since so few films and television programs have characters with disabilities, viewers who don’t have disabilities or who don’t know people with disabilities only learn about their experiences from examples in films such as “Me Before You.” The result? People view the lives of people with disabilities as being tragic, miserable and pitiful.
“Me Before You” capitalizes on existing widely held negative ideas about disability and exploits them as fodder for entertainment,” writes Emily Ladau, in a piece for Salon. “Prior to becoming disabled, Will was successful and happy, but Moyes implies that anything good in life will come to an end when disability becomes a reality.”
3. The film feels emotionally manipulative
Some disabilities advocates have pointed out that the film is “calculated to play upon the emotions of the viewer by evoking disability.” And it seems to work.
“It’s become almost a running joke that if you want to win an Oscar, play a disabled character,” writes Kathleen Hawkins of the BBC. Think: Daniel Day Lewis for his performance in “My Left Foot,” Dustin Hoffman in “Rain Man,” and Eddie Redmayne for “The Theory of Everything.”
4. (Spoiler Alert) The film’s ending implies that having a disability is a fate worse than death.
In the end, despite his love for Louisa and everything else he has to live for, Will Traynor chooses to end his life. His reasons? He doesn’t want to live if he can’t do the things he did before his accident, he doesn’t want to be a burden to Louisa and his family and he doesn’t want her to end up resenting or pitying him in the future.
Members of Not Dead Yet UK, a group that’s part of a global alliance of people with disabilities who oppose euthanasia and assisted suicide picketed the film’s premiere and posted this statement on its website: “ Not Dead Yet UK is deeply concerned to see yet another film which casts non-disabled people as disabled people and shows the lives of disabled people as not worth living.”