When I watched the trailer for Me Before You, I expected a riotous romance with touches of Jane Austen and British wit. As I began watching, I was sold. Once I reached the end of the movie, I was stunned. I didn’t understand. The ending left a bad taste in my mouth, and I couldn’t peg down why. Now, after watching it again (and reading Jojo Moyes’ original book), it’s a little easier to see.
It failed genre expectations.
I did a quick Google search to see which genre this book/movie falls under. Some pegged it as ‘realistic/adult fiction’, and others made a solid claim of ‘a romance novel’. No matter what technical classification it falls under, the story centers around a romance.
Even if you’re not an avid romance reader (I’m not), what is the #1 expectation for those types of stories? Yep. The happy couple rides off into the sunset and lives happily ever after. Perhaps all of us hopeless romantics overdosed on Disney as children, but Me Before You blows this expectation out of the water. Call it subverting cliche, call it whatever you choose…but it crushed the usual expectations for that genre.
It destroyed the power of the heroine’s external journey.
Lou Clark, like any well-rounded protagonist, had to experience two journeys. One was internal, the other was external. One couldn’t happen without the other. Spending two hours (or even more, if you chose to read the book), for an ending that denies all her external effort is disappointing. To Jojo Moyes and the screenwriters’ credit, Lou’s character arc was amazing. But for a movie so powerfully centered on life (‘Live boldly, Clark.’ ‘You only get one life. It’s actually your duty to live it as fully as possible’), the assisted suicide of Will Traynor ended up destroying all Lou’s efforts to keep him alive. Lou’s internal journey wasn’t denied at all by the ending. (Even though all the emphasis on life was somewhat sketchy, as if the characters hadn’t learned the intended lesson from the theme.) But her external efforts were denied, and that’s hard for readers or viewers to swallow.
It romanticized sin and death.
I don’t have a disability. I only have empathy and a bit of knowledge randomly plucked from Google and advanced biology class. And trust me, there are multiple other blog posts/Twitter rants that scream against the potential takeaways.
It’s not the ending that any romantic would have chosen. It’s not the ending that any person would have chosen in their own life. I think, sometimes, we expect stories to only tell us life as we wish it were. We like to stay in a bubble of good overcoming evil, life winning over death, and bad things only happening to bad people. While that is the case in eternity, it’s not always the truth in our immediate situations. Seeing a relationship fall apart due to a suicide is painful. Those who deal with mental illness or have friends who do, are well aware of the pain. Me Before You wasn’t trying to cultivate realism or even pessimism. The last moments of the movie include a bittersweet day in Paris, with Lou Clark ready to take on the world after her disabled soulmate ended his life. It made assisted suicide out to be romantic.
Authors have a lot of pressure on them. In a world where there are too many forms of story for one person to consume, they’re expected to be perfect. There’s so much to ace. Our story hooks have to tell enough information to ground the reader, but not too much. We mustn’t introduce too many characters at once. Our middles must not be saggy. Out of all the things that authors love learning about and writing about, the ending is the most important. Sure, if your book isn’t well-written, no reader will ever make it that far. But it provides a cap and a sort of emotional closure to the story. The fact that an ending could blow up so much controversy is proof.
What worldview do you want readers to take away from your book? What do you want to leave them with? Those questions are far more important than trivial details that won’t impact your reader forever.