When an ‘inspirational’ film sends out depressing, dangerous message

Emily Murtagh, Research Associate with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics
Emily Murtagh, Research Associate with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics
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This year’s film Me Before You, based on Jojo Moyes 2012 novel of the same name, was a big hit at the box office this summer. It is easy to see why, with two gorgeous leads, a mesmerising soundtrack and the promise of a devastating love story. But the movie, in its light and fluffy packaging, presents a troubling representation of assisted suicide and disability (big spoilers ahead).

The film tells the story of Will (Sam Claflin), a successful young businessman. When he is left paralysed by a road accident, his parents hire Louisa (Emilia Taylor), a girl with lots of potential but not many career prospects. She soon realises her task is not simply to assist with his care, but to help this beautiful, brooding man, who happens to be in a wheelchair, fall in love with life again, the life he has decided that he wants to end.

Representations in literature and film are hugely important. Human beings process the world through stories and gain resources to live more effectively through the lessons and experiences of others. Through real or fictional stories persons can become acutely aware of the joys and challenges of those with very different life events from their own.

Stories also help individuals recognise that they are not alone in the world. Through characters and their experiences a person can sometimes see a reflection of himself or herself and say “it is OK to be me”.

But what if the only representation of an individual’s identity, seen on the big screen, loudly proclaims that “it is not OK to be you”? What if one of the only stories one sees with a representation of a paralysed man climaxes with his romanticised suicide?

Me Before You ends with the words of Will, after he has taken his own life in a Swiss assisted-dying clinic, urging Louisa to live boldly. Earlier in the film he tells her “it’s actually your duty to live as fully as possible”.

This inspirational message stands in cold contrast to the path he chooses to take. How is it possible for the viewer to take home a message other than that being able to walk is a crucial element to living a fulfilling and worthwhile life? What kind of message does this give to society or persons who are disabled?

Indeed, many disabled and other vulnerable persons are already well aware that assisted suicide legislation is generally aimed at persons such as them – not healthy young individuals – and they find this frightening. They also consider such a position to be profoundly discriminatory, undermining the equality in value and worth of all persons in society.

It is unfortunate that Me Before You does not offer any contrasting disabled character. It offers no insight into what it means to learn to live a fulfilled life in light of one’s circumstances completely changing. Something so many people have done and continue to do every day.

When ethical and societal questions are raised in popular culture it is a wonderful opportunity to wrestle with them, challenge the assumptions that lie in films. It should be recognised that the media also have great influence – and even power – over the people who use them. Through the media, distorted value beliefs may become part of the way society thinks, without people even realising.

Thus, one cannot let those beliefs go unchallenged. To live boldly can mean many different things to many different people, and to limit what a meaningful life looks like in this way makes for unsettling viewing.

Emily Murtagh, Research Associate with the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics