How to Sound Smart: Me Before You

Me Before You by Jojo Moyes
Me Before You by Jojo Moyes.

If you’re paying attention to either the bestseller lists or the new films being released, you’ve likely already heard about Me Before You, the bestselling novel by Jojo Moyes or the film adaptation hitting theaters this June. If you’ve read the book—and it’s sequel, After You—you’re likely already a fan (and slightly dehydrated from the nonstop crying), but if you haven’t you might be wondering why the film is getting so much attention.

It’s only partially because the books have been huge hits for Moyes, sitting on the bestseller lists on and off ever since Me Before You was published in 2012. The other reasons are the casting of the film, and the controversy surrounding the story and the depiction of one of the characters. If you want to be forewarned before sitting down in the theater, or just want to be able to chat about this cultural phenomenon from a place of knowledge, here’s everything you need to know.

The Books

Me Before You and After You were written by English author and journalist Jojo Moyes. Moyes was a successful journalist for decades, mainly with the U.K.’s The Independent, and launched her career as a novelist in 2002 with the publication of Sheltering Rain. Since then she’s published twelve more novels; the biggest hit, by far, was 2012’s Me Before You.

The story centers on twenty-something Louisa, who is a single woman living with her family in a small town in England.

Bored with her life but unambitious, Louisa loses her job at the local market, putting her family’s financial security in jeopardy. Louisa isn’t particularly educated or skilled and lacks employment options, so she takes a job as a caretaker for a wealthy aristocrat who was paralyzed in an accident some years before.

Will Traynor is handsome, rich, and intelligent and lived a full and rewarding life prior to his accident, but has regressed into depression and suicidal intentions since. His mother hired Louisa despite her lack of qualifications because she hopes the young woman will inspire Will to give up his plans to pursue assisted suicide.

Stories about young, vibrant caretakers giving people with disabilities renewed hope aren’t new—most recently the international hit film The Intouchables explored very similar territory—but Moyes’ novels are unique in their emotional depth, as both Will and Louisa—and to a more limited extent Will’s parents and Louisa’s family—have powerful effects on each other’s lives. Spoiler warning: The first book has a very, very sad ending.

The Controversy

That sad ending is what has brought demonstrators out to the film’s premieres. A group called Not Dead Yet has been very public in their dislike of the depiction of Will in the story, believing that Moyes has made the assumption that life is not worth living if you’re paralyzed. Moyes has maintained that she’s not making an overall statement with the story, but rather pursued what she thought the character would do.

The question of assisted suicide is a charged one, and a question the book and film tackle straight on—who gets to decide if your life is worth living? The controversy of course stems from the fact that Moyes is not herself paralyzed or otherwise afflicted, and many in that community feel it’s form of exploitation to create a character like Will and then infuse his existence with assumptions about the challenges—emotional, mental, and spiritual—that come with such an existence. On the other hand, of course, writers have been using their imagination and research skills to create characters outside of their own experience for thousands of years, and the story is told with such emotional weight that the detractors remain in the overwhelming minority.

And argument can be made, in fact, that Will is the action hero of the story, not a paralyzed, passive presence.

While he is depressed and largely passive at the story’s beginning, he is the one who affects Louisa, who acts upon her passive and directionless existence, inspiring her to try new things and take new chances. He is also much more firmly in charge of his existence that Louisa, even after they have fallen in love and he’s changed her life so profoundly; even after experiencing what he admits were the best six months of his life—before or after the accident—he pursues his plans. Not out of depression, but out of conviction. Few fictional characters, much less real people, have that kind of certainty.

The Casting

The film has a distinctly sci-fi casting, as The Mother of Dragons (Emilia Clarke from Game of Thrones) and The Impossible Girl (Jenna Coleman from Doctor Who) play the roles of sisters Louisa and Treena, and Will is portrayed by Sam Claflin, best-known up til now for his role in the Hunger Games films. Clarke’s been struggling to establish herself as a film star despite her fame in the hit HBO program based on George R.R. Martin’s novels, with her reboot of the Terminator franchise arriving stillborn at the box office. Louisa, however, seems like a role ideally suited to her, so it will be interesting to see whether the books fans embrace her or not.

Jojo Moyes has crafted a compelling story of love in the face of immense challenges, filled with complex characters and issues. If you’re wondering if all those weeks on the bestseller lists mean you should check out Me Before You, then the answer is a pretty clear yes.