Monday, 4 July 2016

Movie Vs. Book: Me Before You

A girl in a small town forms an unlikely bond with a recently-paralyzed man she's taking care of. 

It’s easy to be cold and cynical these days, but we should never lose sight of the simple, cathartic pleasure of a good cry at the movies. At first, I didn’t want to review this novel – nor the movie – because I knew I would want to re-read it. Which might seem perverse if you know that for most of the last hundred pages I was dissolved in tears? Based on the best-selling 2012 novel by Jojo Moyes who also penned the screenplay. This story will feel familiar to anyone who sniffed through Love Story or The Fault in Our Stars. Surprisingly it’s better than both. Me Before You is a love story, a family story and above all, it’s a story of the bravery and sustained the effort needed to redirect the path of a life once it’s been pushed off course. This is also a story that is eloquent not so much in its delivery as in its humanity. The set up is the same as many of classic (and non-classic) romance: a poor but cheerful young girl meets a rich, grumpy gentleman and begins working for him. But what makes Me Before You different and quite interesting in principle is that Will Traynor is physically broken as well as emotionally.

You’ll forgive the movie’s clichés because of its surprisingly winning performances. As the film goes on and the frost between both protagonists melts, both actors give their stock roles unexpected emotional layers. On a basic level, it is engaging watching Lou enter this new world for which she is entirely unprepared. Game of Thrones’ Emilia Clarke stars as Louisa, she’s like Love Actually-era Keira Knightley, crossed with a Hello Kitty doll. Clarke’s sincerity doesn’t just win Will’s heart, it wins ours too. Will Traynor since he’s played by Sam Claflin, whose Finnick Odair was one of the best things in the Hunger Games series, isn’t just killer handsome or impossibly good-looking even if his condition has left him bitterly depressed and cuttingly sarcastic in a wheelchair. The actor is good as Will, working well with the physical demands of the role and even bringing a gentle flirtatiousness to his character, as he develops his relationship with Lou. In fact, his grin, with its slight touch of a smirk – creates an unmistakable echo of a young Hugh Grant. Sam Claflin makes Will a broken man with a powerful life inside him.  Plus, Will’s character makes me think of Mr. Rochester in Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre; with his rudeness and temper. While Louisa is so Jane Eyre: “One of the invisible”. Lou has never lived; Will has, but no longer can. You don’t have to be Nicholas Sparks to know where this is heading – that these two opposites will end up attracting, and that love, at least for a while, will prove stronger than death. Lou is not heroic and her male counterpart may be nobody’s idea of a leading man or Prince Charming, and yet with both of them, Jojo Moyes created an affair I will always remember.

Me Before You is a heartbreaker in the best sense. Employing emotional truth to bring the reader to tears. And yet, unlike other novels, tears are not gratuitous. Some situations, the author forces the reader to recognize, really are worth crying over. Furthermore, people can take an awful lot of sadness if you can be funny about it. Jojo Moyes is a literary stylist. Just a storyteller. And a really good one. She manages to draw on the skills she owned as a journalist to create a clear, candid picture of the practicalities of Will’s situation. While the novelist’s mind casts an illuminating light on her character’s reactions. Moyes makes them coming together extremely tender, both sweet and real. But there’s a deadline. One that haunts their love story haunts the novel. The author is masterful, in not shying from the complexities or shading the agony of choosing between life and death. It’s achingly hard to read at moments and yet such a joy.

Screenwriters choose to lose the “Maze” scene when Lou recalls a sexual assault when she was younger. Often when you read about rape in fiction, it’s the defining event of a story. And cutting it from the movie, I think, was a good thing because the scene is very opaque in the book, and putting it on film would have given it far more weight than it has in the book. Plus, it would have eventually change the mood of the story. However the “Birthday Dinner” scene, at Louisa’s home, hits a particularly high note, offering the most poignant moment both in the book and the movie – its soul, really – as well as a pitch-perfect hilarious one. Finally, my favorite part of both the film and the book is when Will and Lou go out on a “date” to a concert. She wears a dress of sexiest scarlet, and as they are in the car ready to go home, he confesses in a very Hugh Gratian manner: “I don’t want to go in yet. I just want to be a man who’s been to a concert with a girl in a red dress.” I know a good British rom-com reference when I see one.

Overall, Me Before You doesn’t try to reinvent the genre. We’ve all seen some version of this movie before, but that doesn’t make it any less effective. It knows what it is and embraces it. “Tell me something good,” Will says to Louisa at two transformative junctures of the book. This story at its heart is about two people who properly listen to each other, it is something good. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have something in my eye. It’s allergies, I swear. 

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