Me before us
Passed off as sacrificial, a charming romance ends with one selfish act
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Throughout my crowded screening of Me Before You, as I listened to mostly young women sniffling and, on occasion, outright sobbing in the dark beside me, one public figure remained continually in my mind—Charles Krauthammer. Could British author Jojo Moyes have been familiar with the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist, physician, and political pundit when she penned her screenplay and the best-selling novel it was based on?
Krauthammer, who became paralyzed while attending Harvard Medical School, taught sailing and water skiing as a teenager. He skied competitively during his undergraduate time at Oxford. In this way, he strikingly resembles the leading man in Moyes’ story, Will Traynor.
Handsome, successful, witty, and cultured, Will (Sam Claflin) is an adventurous rock climber and sky diver before a motorcycle accident leaves him quadriplegic. After losing his physical abilities, Will also loses his will to live. Desperate to shake her son out of suicidal defeatism, Will’s mother hires a caretaker, Lou (Emilia Clarke)—a chatty, working-class village girl with no qualifications but plenty of cheer to help him find renewed purpose in life.
In the 1990s, you could always identify a romantic leading lady by her uptight yet charming efficiency. These days, you can identify her by her clumsy yet charming incompetence. Like Bridget Jones or Twilight’s Bella, Lou could never be mistaken for athletic. She hates to run, can barely ride a bike, and blurts out every awkward, stray thought that enters her mind. Naturally, she and Will are destined to attract.
Thanks to Claflin and Clarke’s winning performances, you can’t help but root for Will and Lou’s Nicholas Sparks-ish PG-13 romance. (Cautions: language and sexual dialogue.) As Will spins Lou around the dance floor in his wheelchair, the audience falls for them as much as they do for each other.
How awful, then, the moment you realize that everything about their relationship—gooey, romantic junk food that it is—is merely the lead-up to a much grander emotional manipulation. (Spoiler alert.) As the supposed realist Will explains, falling in love only serves to harden his resolve to end his life. Thus Will is presented as a Byronic hero for sparing Lou a lifelong relationship with a wheelchair-bound man. The ultimate in shallow crassness, Lou’s happy ending comes from the pile of money Will leaves her so that she can “live boldly” in his absence. (Because bold living, apparently, can only be accomplished by moving arms and legs.)
How do we battle appeals like Me Before You, which shows only the melodramatic heartbreak of Will and Lou’s star-crossed love before panning away to a vision of death that’s all soft white light and falling leaves followed by fond, poignant memories? We don’t see the “doctors” at the euthanasia clinic administer deadly drugs into Will’s arm. We don’t see Will experience any fear or hopelessness. We certainly don’t see any regret from Lou or Will’s parents for participating in state-sanctioned murder.
There isn’t space here to go over all the arguments against the selfish death culture Me Before You advocates. And I don’t think it would do much good anyway. I doubt the sobbing girls from my screening would have much room for philosophical argument in minds still filled with images of the beautiful, tragic Will.
But I think they’d have room for other Wills.
In a 1984 interview with The Washington Post, Krauthammer said of his wife’s desire to marry him, “I am a little more work. She obviously had to think about it. … And she decided to do it. … She wanted me.”
That’s love. And I hope one day soon we’ll all have an opportunity to laugh and weep in a darkened theater over a story just like it.
Listen to Megan Basham discuss Me Before You on the June 10, 2016, edition of The World and Everything in It.
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