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The Opportunity 'Me Before You' Misses to Change the World

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“Rain Man.”

“Boys Don’t Cry.”


“To Kill a Mockingbird.”

Books and movies have the power to change society and how we view the human condition. They give us the opportunity to put a name and face to something we might not otherwise encounter in our day-to-day lives, and allow us to reconsider our own position with a renewed sense of empathy and understanding.

When “Rain Man” came out in 1988, few people had even heard of savant syndrome—now part of the autism spectrum—much less knew anything about it. In just over two hours, Raymond Babbitt gave us a glimpse of what autism could be like for some (I say could be because Hoffman’s portrayal isn’t the most accurate.) Through his eyes, mainstream society not only discovered autism, but began to accept in a way it never had before. The film depicted Raymond Babbitt as a human being with emotions and needs. And that changes the world.

The same can be said for Brandon Teena and living as a transgender person, Andrew Beckett struggling with AIDS and discrimination, and Atticus Finch in the racist south.

It’s also why “Me Before You” by Jojo Moyes troubles me so much. I haven’t seen the movie, but I did read the book when I was doing research for my novel, “Into the Deep End,” because I was reading anything and everything I could get my hands on regarding spinal cord injuries. A book with a character who had a SCI was a thrilling prospect.

At first.

Because the message of that book isn’t—as the author claims—that every person has a right to die with dignity, but that the only logical response to becoming disabled is choose to kill yourself. Even if you‘ve found a really wonderful, loyal, ridiculously optimistic woman who loves you anyway.

Storytellers have the responsibility to understand the message they are sending through their narrative and honor the parts of society they are portraying through their characters’ lives. It can’t be enough to make the audience cry. The story will stick with them long after the last phrase has been read, and we authors have to do some real soul-searching on what message we want to send.

When I was writing “Into the Deep End,” I knew I had to honor the men and women who had sustained spinal cord injuries. Through my character’s eyes, I wanted the readers—many of whom I knew had little knowledge of what that truly meant—to come away not just entertained, but empathetic, educated, and maybe a little bit enlightened, too. I wanted the reader to close the book cheering for the main character, Luke Stevenson, while at the same time seeing our disabled population in a different way—not just as fodder for inspiration porn, those awful memes of some kickass double amputee on a race track who few could beat on their best day with the caption “What’s your excuse?”—but as full-fledged functional members of our society, not only capable of rich, fulfilling, amazing lives, but living them.

And that’s the opportunity “Me Before You” misses. We don’t see Will Traynor find that moment for himself, despite the odds life stacked against him. Instead, he simply gives up, and the audience is left with little more than to think, “yeah, I probably would, too.”

That, friends, does little to change our society, our dialogue, or our acceptance of what it means to be disabled. It’s the true tragedy in “Me Before You.”

Learn more about Leesa on her website.

The Mighty is asking the following: Describe a scene or line from a movie, show, or song that’s stuck with you through your experience with disability, disease or mental illness. Check out our Submit a Story page for more about our submission guidelines.

Originally published: June 7, 2016
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