Thea Sharrock has brought Jojo Moyes’s screenplay based on her own best selling novel to the screen. Unfortunately, the result is an imbalanced film that features a tough topic which isn’t given proper time or weight. In the end, the translation from paper to screen has resulted in a film that spends too much time on a relatively simple narrative and does not ask enough questions, give enough answers, or contain much to be remembered for.
Me Before You tells the story of Lou Clark (Emilia Clarke, Game of Thrones), a small-town girl who finds a job providing companionship to Will Traynor, a quadriplegic man (Sam Claflin, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire). Feelings develop between the two as the motivations of Will’s parents become more apparent: they have been hoping that someone will be able to convince Will not to pursue euthanasia. The conceit of the film sounds like it should be meaty and challenging, but the final result is neither.
Novel adaptations have been a staple of narrative filmmaking since its inception. Recognisable commodities draw in the paying public, and timelines are potentially shortened on the screenwriting side. Unfortunately, the industry realises just how much time and how many resources are required to attain a return on their investment, and productions are rarely provided enough of either to result in a quality product. Me Before You is next in line to be hamstrung into failing to achieve what might have been. If a producer had looked kindly on the production and put more behind it, there is a chance it could have become more than just another Hollywood romance. Instead audiences end up seeing the most economically viable final product.
A novel and a screenplay are vastly different beasts. A novel can take just as much time as it needs to create narrative interest and thematic resonance; they do not require the reader to sit down and consume the content in one go. A film on the other hand has a time limit and everything needs to be squeezed inside. Moyes appears to have forgotten that there was more to the original than a love story. The screenplay concentrates too much on getting from point A to point B, and not in creating depth in the characters, or in exploring the emotionally charged motivations for or against euthanasia and how it has the power to pull people apart or bring them together. As is often the case for contemporary Hollywood love stories, if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen the film. Even the finale can be guessed with the odds of a coin flip. What fills out the rest of the hour and fifty minutes? Padding really. The film follows the same basic story that the novel did, but it lacks the resonance or nuance it may have once had in its previous form. This is Moyes’s first screenwriting credit and it is not a bad first outing but there are extended moments of exposition where we are filled in on people’s backgrounds and relationships instead of them appearing naturally through characterisation or dialogue and we get the idea that Moyes was too precious with her narrative to entrust moments of reflection and pathos to the actors, instead giving them words to say to fill the space.
Me Before You does not try and offer anything more than the standard fare, becoming yet another entry in a seemingly endless series of romance films that barely entertain the thought of moving beyond stereotypes and genre norms. Will Traynor may be quadriplegic, but he is played by an able-bodied man, and as much as the writer may have been attempting to be progressive in their character choices, the film does a poor job at depicting the choices or debates around the topic of euthanasia. In the film at least, character’s opinions on the topic are superficial at best - Will’s whole motivation is that he used to be an extreme sports junkie and now he is unable to do that anymore - which does nothing more than trivialise and misrepresent a very difficult, multilayered, and nuanced issue. In the end, the film appears to ask us to take Will’s side on the topic, indicating it is the right choice. It is troubling to see that all the characters who opposed Will’s decision were women, tacitly reinforcing an outdated idea that men know better. Once again it seems we are let down by a film that could have used its built-in audience to spread word about an interesting film that would show the studios that the public is yearning for complex stories instead of more generic “Hollywood” beige.
Emilia Clarke carries a lot of the film, as the narrative is told from Lou’s perspective. Lou is an almost polar opposite to the character that the actress plays on Game of Thrones, with a bubbly, quirky and optimistic attitude. The character is over-the-top and Clarke's portrayal strays that direction as well, in such a way that becomes distracting when placed in contrast with the more subdued performances from the other members of the cast. The contrast between the characters may be intentional, but the result is jarring nonetheless. The rest of the performances are perfectly serviceable, as there is not a lot to challenge the wider cast in the script. Because the screenplay concentrates solely on the progression of the story, there is little depth for the audience to latch onto to gain any understanding of the motivations of the other characters. What we are left with is: “he is a bit of a dodgy boyfriend,” “this one is an exposition machine,” “she is angry because she is opposed to euthanasia.” None of it is grounded in character, it just is their character.
Adaptations can be difficult if those involved chase the unicorn of replicating the original. To properly translate one form to another a functional understanding of the new form is required to make the property sing as it did in the original. When that understanding is missing it does not produce an adaptation, it creates an ugly hybrid that is unable to elicit any of the pleasure of the original in the new medium. As much as there is to complain about, Me Before You is a completely functional as a film. It will probably do what the studios want it to do: make a tidy profit off the back of its existing fan base. Is that what we want though? Hollywood scraping together just enough creativity to make a profit? My vote is no. If you haven’t read the novel or seen the trailer, then you might have a giggle or shed a tear. In a couple of months, it will be pretty well suited for watching on DVD while cuddling up on the sofa with a cuppa. I just don’t think that this is one you will tell your friends about or return to time and again… unless maybe you’ve forgotten that you’ve seen it already.