UNDAUNTED: Life, love and Dignitas

Steve Daunt despairs at the latest Hollywood depiction of disability in 'Me Before You'

Me Before You, Emilia Clarke, Sam Claffin,

Image: Warner Bros/YouTube

Me Before You hits screens this week, and is yet another ham-fisted attempt by Hollywood to portray a disabled character. 

Big country house? Check. 20-something English actress with a following from TV? Check. Game of Hunger Pangs leading man? Check. Best selling novel tie-in? Check. Ed Sheeran song to make you feel all loved up? Double-check. Have the hero die: cue the cinematic orgasm.

Those six simple steps are the foundation of any Hollywood romantic summer blockbuster. This summer’s offering is Me Before You, which follows the formula to a tee. 

Why should I care? Just look at the trailer.

The hero (Sam Claffin) is a wheelchair user, or in the world that Me Before You exists in, he is confined to the chair. A tragic accident has robbed him of everything that makes him a man.

His female carer (Emilia Clarke) will be just that; a carer. Of course she falls in love as she shaves his beard off, the beard which somehow signified his self-pity. A clean-shaven hero reclaims his zest for life, or at least enough of it to head to a high-brow concert with the carer in a red dress.

That love will remain unrequited, of course. Our hero is not for turning. The love of a good woman is not enough to stop him heading to Dignitas to top himself as the credits roll. In even better news, he leaves the carer a large wad of cash to free her and her family from a life of penury. Oh, I forgot to mention the carer had a history of unemployment, which was really bad luck as she was her family’s main source of income.

Fiction, eh?

Let’s take a breath and unpick everything that's wrong with this. Well, let's start with the fact that this is another Hollywood movie using a non-disabled actor to ham it up. Is it too early to mention Oscar? Ironically, this may be the least of Me Before You’s many crimes, the biggest of which is how it normalizes the link between disability and assisted suicide.

I still have no fixed opinion on my last days. Hospice care would seem the best option, but that choice will have to do with any illness I may or may not have. It will be a pathway to my departure. Hopefully my life will have been lived; time to say goodbye.

The choice, if there is one, will have NOTHING to do with my disability - my disability is part of me. It is how others react to my disability that makes me want to scream.

It is obvious that the hero has internalized Aall the crap society throws at disabled people and has decided "yep, it’s OK to kill myself."

I understand some disabled people, particularly those who acquired their impairments, may feel that way. It may sound trite, but role models are important. Active and respected disabled members of society can show that there is life after a life-changing accident.

We now have a mainstream Hollywood movie planting the idea that heading to Dignitas is an acceptable thing to do if you are disabled, and millions will see it. Those without disabilities could well start thinking "oh you have a disability? How can you cope? I saw this one movie and...".

Vulnerable disabled people may see the film when they are feeling at their lowest, showing them that the easy option just got sexy.

Image: Writer Jojo Moyes, actress Emilia Clarke and director Thea Sharrock pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film 'Me Before You' in London. Tim Ireland / AP/Press Association Images.

In researching this, I was surprised to note that the author of the novel, Jojo Moyes, has a disabled child. I also spotted that she hasn’t really engaged with any of the criticisms sent her way by disabled people. In an interview with a US website from 2014, she said she had no opinion on assisted suicide, which then begs the question why did she write the book?

Her admonishment not to judge anybody unless you have 'walked in their shoes' also seems extremely problematic. Her audience also seems to be young adults, many of whom may be dealing with disability for the first time through this book or film, making all the reasons I’ve outlined even more pertinent.

She also pointed to a recommendation by the Christopher Reeve Foundation for the book. Again alarm bells are ringing; is the image of Christopher Reeve a positive one? Many disabled people were appalled at how he reacted to his injury, and refuse to view him as a role model.

I’m going to tweet this column to Jojo, but I don’t expect a response. I may be wrong. And just in case you are wondering, I wont be heading to a screening.