Assisted suicide in contemporary entertainment: ‘Me Before You’

by Margaret Pearce

Recently, I thought I would revisit the movie Me Before You and explore the messages it communicates about life. The movie is based on a novel of the same name and was released in 2016. It is described as a romance drama, though I would be inclined to suggest it has a lightness that is reminiscent of English romantic comedies, in part due to the fun wardrobe and goofy faces pulled by the female romantic lead, Louisa. But, as the title of this article suggests, it could be argued that it is ultimately a pro-euthanasia movie.

The main male character, Will Traynor, a quadriplegic, is shown through flashbacks to have once embodied the height of worldly success. However, as the result of an accident, he appears to have lost all the worldly markers of ultimate human thriving in this present age.

Before he was rendered disabled, the movie takes mere seconds to infer that Will’s existence dripped with power. He had wealth, youthful good looks and physical prowess, professional and romantic success, media attention, and unlimited freedom.

Now, other than the remaining assets of supportive parents and financial wealth, all he appears to possess is the terrible burden of physical and mental pain and suffering, a mean temper, daily visits from a doctor, and the limited environment of a converted stable.

The plot establishes that the young and vivacious Louisa is gifted beyond her comparative lowly circumstances, and is under pressure to take almost any job to assist her parents financially.

Meanwhile, Will has such a difficult temperament that the family have challenges retaining staff to care for him. The family and his GP are also struggling with his determined aim of ending his life sometime in the near future. Perhaps an eccentric, young and attractive helper might persuade him to stay alive and not end his life? Louisa is given the job as companion and carer to Will, and she encounters all the predicted challenges while endeavouring to gain his trust and friendship, and perhaps persuade him to change course.

As the film unfolds, a wide range of characters react to Will’s desire to end his life through assisted suicide. It would seem that not even one of them actually naturally supports or likes the idea. Peppered through the film are the individual wrestlings of these support characters who all (but one) eventually resolve that it is his choice; it’s what he wants, justified by the level of pain and misery he endures.

I think it is important to note that the native reaction people display is against assisted dying. Could it be that in our deepest beings, we know that it is wrong to take a life – even if we can justify it somehow, longing to see a dear one relieved from their suffering?

At one point Will states, “This is not my life … I can’t be the man who just accepts this”. To me, this suggests that he holds to the belief that his real life was the one prior to quadriplegia: the life of success and health, not this present situation of weakness and ill health. And so, he persists in the plan to end this ‘unreal’ life he views as not worth living.

Will can find no peace in this life – peace that may flow from a type of surrender to the reality of an individual’s situation.

When I reflect on the example of the people I know who are blessed with deep peace, I see they have confidence and hope in something more. Something beyond the sufferings and humiliations of this life. A peace that flows from knowing that they are freed from the power of death and have a heavenly future in store. (Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting? 1 Cor 15:54b-55.)

I guess the central question of the film is: could the love and support, the youthful exuberance and novelty of a delightful, eccentric carer transform the withdrawn and hopeless Will? And the answer is, yes. Louisa Clark’s love, care, and compassion do transform him. But here, through my lens of a Christian perspective, is the tragedy of the film – that even though she desires to care for and serve Will, and though his outlook is changed as they form a bond – he still persists with his determined goal of death.

In my thinking, we receive life as a gift from God. We receive breath from God, and it is God who determines when our life will come to an end. It is not our decision to make. We should also consider the medical professionals who are expected to comply with the requests of those who choose to end their lives. This is in direct contrast to the basic principles of their occupation, which is centred around saving and strengthening life.

With only a short amount of time to tell their stories (111 minutes for this movie), filmmakers use many devices to direct the viewer’s thoughts and feelings. I would say, upfront, that this movie intentionally draws on heartfelt music and other warm fuzzies to carry the viewer towards being okay and ‘on board’ with Will’s choice to seek euthanasia to end his life.

There is no mistaking the intentions of the movie makers when, near the close of the film, Lou wears a butterfly-patterned outfit symbolically indicating both Will’s release from pain and the ‘new life’ Will’s imminent death will provide to her character.

At the end of the film, we see that the worldly rewards of wealth, freedom and future are passed forward to Louisa as a legacy from Will. He dies so that she can live it up in Paris and see the world. He died so that she could live without financial difficulty. Sounds positive, right? Nothing wrong with that, surely – are we not taught to lay down our life for a friend? But true sacrifice does not lead us to disobey God’s natural law.

As Christians, we know that God cannot give His blessing through the murder of one, even for the sake of another. A film like this, then, highlights how out of step our Christian faith is with current culture. Indeed, numerous polls show that large parts of the population support assisted death in situations of terminal illness (see link at the end of the article).

To contrast the two positions on suffering and suicide I would say that secular society places great value on health, choice, control, rights to autonomy, and what appears to be compassionate relief from pain and suffering. Whereas Christian faith (with our eyes fixed on the example of the innocent, but condemned and suffering, Jesus) places value on Christ-like love: obeying the commandments, endurance and perseverance, humbly accepting what we can’t change, caring for each other, and bearing each other’s burdens with the certain hope that suffering is not meaningless, but made meaningful.

If willingly enduring suffering sounds difficult to you, you wouldn’t be alone. Christ’s own disciples struggled with many of his teachings and found it difficult to come to terms with his repeated predictions of his path to the cross. And Jesus said such mysterious things, like, blessed are the poor in spirit… those who mourn… meek, and the persecuted.

Christian teaching has many challenges to our modern sensibilities and sinful nature. But the disciples also acknowledged that Jesus’ way is the only way – for He has the words of eternal life.

For in his body, he swallowed up death. And in our earthly bodies, made in God’s image, we share in an eternal future through his gift of life through faith and baptism.

As a film, Me Before You is well made, it maintained my interest but, ultimately, it feels like an advertisement for assisted suicide, given the directorial decision to frame the net positive of Will’s death upon Louisa in such a clearly warm and affirmative glow.

We live awash in the messages of movies and media. I’d encourage us all to be on guard to take notice of the subtle and not-so-subtle messaging techniques movies enlist. When we are exhorted not to be like the world, I think this is one of the areas in which we can be light in the darkness.

Further information

Polling on attitudes toward VAD:

An Australian Government information page on VAD: