June 3, 2016
Author and teacher Marshall McLuhan coined the phrase “the medium is the message” in the 1960s. McLuhan posited that there were inherent qualities in any medium that affected the experience of receiving the messages being sent.
(Don’t worry, we’re getting to a film review, I promise.)
I don’t know that McLuhan ever went so far as to say there were things that “should” or “should not” be done inside a medium but my experience proves, at least, this: there are things that work extremely well in books that just don’t translate to the screen, and vice versa.
And that brings us to Me Before You. I haven’t read the novel from which the film was adapted, so I can’t speak to what’s been changed or left the same or even whether it’s worth reading at all. I can tell you, however, that in every category – from dialogue to character descriptions – the film seems to labor in getting the written word to the screen.
The story is pretty straight-forward. Will Traynor (Sam Claflin) a rich white dude, whom you can tell is very strong and cool and important by the way his body is shot like a car commercial in the opening scene, is paralyzed in an accident and requires full-time care. He has become very bitter about his situation…which you can tell by his shaggy hair and his scruffy beard and the way he treats every single person around him with contempt. Enter his new caretaker, Louisa (Emilia Clarke), who’s quirky and full of life…which you can tell by her bright yellow tights and fun hair and really expressive eyebrows.
Clarke and Claflin work hard to make their characters real and sincere, but they are in a losing battle with the material every step of the way. It is so overly written that it’s almost a fairy tale world, an alternate universe. The entire film seems like it was made by a group of teenagers guessing at what they think (hope?) adulthood is like, and thus it is not grounded in anything that feels like an honest experience an actual adult person might have.
The author of the book, JoJo Moyes, wrote the screenplay for the film, and this seems like a classic case of a writer not being able to “kill their darlings” when necessary. I can practically hear the arguments with the wardrobe department now: “No! The tights have to be BRIGHTER! She’s QUIRKY! Don’t you GET IT?!” Over and over, I felt like I was being beaten over the head by who the filmmakers wanted me to think these people were, but never let me get a look at who they may actually be.
By far the movie’s most damaging offense, though, is that it uses the tools at its disposal to employ the worst kind of emotional manipulation: tricking the audience into thinking they are watching something romantic. The moment the relationship shifts between Will and Louisa it is like a checklist of romantic emotional triggers. It happens at a wedding reception (check), Will’s feeling vulnerable (check), Louisa’s feeling pretty (check), there are white twinkle lights (check) and heavy-handed sappy pop music (check). The wheelchair-bound twirl they take on the dance floor hits every note we’ve been programmed to think of as romantic.
In a more subtle movie, a moment like this could play as a very important high-stakes transition in the story’s central relationship. But this film exhibits exactly zero subtlety on every level, from script to performance to direction to cinematography to soundtrack, and yet is still able to elicit teary eyes and tummy butterflies precisely because of its forceful contrivances. What I’m saying is yes, I cried, but only because I’m socially conditioned to do so! That kind of storytelling, that draws on sappy reactionary sentiment instead of genuine emotion and honest portrayals of complex relationships, is lazy and irresponsible, no matter which medium is used.
Star Rating: 1.5 out of 5 (and one of those is solely for Sam Claflin’s dimples, which almost– almost– save the movie)
YOU SHOULD ALSO: Watch Beaches or Steel Magnolias if what you want is a beautifully made and well-acted drama with similar themes of love and loss. They are just as likely to help you indulge in a good cry whenever you need it and aren’t quite so rage-inducing.
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