Me Before You has stirred a great deal of controversy, as one might expect when a film about disability is created by a non-disabled screenwriter, and a non-disabled director; and even the central character is played by a non-disabled actor. Many of the protests have focused on the last fifteen minutes of the film, and what this conveys about the value of life.
Before you read on, I must give a spoiler alert… in this article I need to indicate what happens at the end. That ending does need to be carefully considered. Certainly I would encourage everyone to think very critically about it, and to listen attentively to the voices of members of the disabled community. Indeed, it is worth considering how the film’s ending might have been different if it had been made fifty or even twenty years ago, and what this indicates about changing attitudes to life in our culture.
At its heart this is a film about life and our attitudes to it. Adapted from the bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes, who also wrote the screenplay, Me Before You tells the story of the paralysed and depressed Will Traynor (played by Sam Claflin), and the unlikely relationship that blossoms with his irrepressibly happy carer, Lou Clark (played by Emilia Clarke).
Before the accident that rendered Will quadriplegic (with only limited movement in his head and hands) he had been a fun-loving adventurer with a drive to succeed. Initially he responded to his paralysis as another challenge to overcome, but after a year he had only regained some movement in his fingers. So he had given up on life, sitting alone in his room, emotionally cold, verbally sarcastic, and quite simply waiting to die, until the wild and wacky Lou Clark became his new carer. Will she give him a new hope and a new life? Will he help her to discover her true self? So far so standard as the film follows the traditional story arc of romantic comedies.
But, then comes the ending which has sparked so much controversy. To engage with that debate, we must consider the framework of the rest of the story, and it may be helpful to set that in the context of different philosophical approaches to life through the ages.
In the film, Will refers to the pleasure he can no longer experience, and how devastating that is for him. But the pleasure he misses is not some mindless physical sensation in his gut or groin, rather he yearns to be back outside a café in Paris drinking coffee, watching and being watched by pretty, intelligent, girls. So, what is ‘pleasure’? The ancient Greek Hedonists asserted that our own personal pleasure is the only intrinsically good thing in life, and so we should live our lives in a way that maximizes net pleasure (that is pleasure minus pain). There were two schools of thought amongst the ancient Greek Hedonists. The Cyrenaics (named after Cyrene, the birthplace of Aristippus, their founder) believed that simple physical, bodily pleasure is more intense and immediate, and therefore more valuable, than the so-called higher pleasures of achievement or fulfilment. The Epicureans, on the other hand (named after their founder Epicurus) believed that the greatest pleasure was tranquillity derived from a life without fear. This, they argued, was best obtained by developing one’s knowledge and relationships.
In the film, Will’s approach to life was closer to the Epicureans than the Cyrenaics. But even his liberating relationship with Lou was not enough to overcome his sense of loss of the active adventurous life he had previously experienced. At one point when Lou seems to offer him a happy future he says ‘this could be a good life, but it is not my life.’ Will cannot see any purpose or meaning in living, despite the new and liberating knowledge and relationship that Lou offers him. So, he moves from Hedonism to Nihilism.
Nihilism has a long history in philosophy, from the ancient Greek Diogenes, through Nietzsche to Derrida. Nihilists believe that there is no true purpose or meaning in life, and nor can there ever be. Such Nihilism is fundamentally based on a belief that there is no God who created us for any reason. If there is no God, they argue, there can be no ultimate purpose or definitive meaning for life.
Inevitably many find that Nihilism is literally unliveable. And that is where we are taken in this film. How can Will continue to live like this? If he will not embrace the new life that Lou offers him what hope does he have for the future? Philosophically, many escape from Nihilism by moving into a form of Existentialism which asserts that we can give meaning to our own lives, as we authenticate ourselves. Nietzsche himself recognised this, and from Kierkegaard through Sartre to Baudrillard different philosophers have offered various ways for people to create their own purpose and meaning, based upon choices that they make. And, again, this perspective is reflected in the film with the emphasis on Will’s right to decide what he does with his life. What will he choose to do?
So we come to the final part of the film, with its controversial ending. Understandably this has upset many in the disabled community, and we need to listen to them when they talk from real experience of the fulfilled lives that are possible for all people.
But, perhaps there is an additional perspective from which we can look at the ending, this time not from philosophy but from theology. In the final scene Lou reads a letter left to her by Will. He tells her to live boldly, to push herself and not to settle for a limited life. Crucially, he tells her that he will always be with her. And here we see some echoes of another story that will be recognised by people of faith. It’s a story of another person who, 2,000 years ago, gave his life in a very different way, but through this he offered his followers a new and fulfilled life in which he promised to be with us always. Whatever we think of the controversy about this film, perhaps we might also be caused to consider whether such a new and fulfilled life might be available for us – regardless of our physical circumstances.