Jojo Moyes: 'Everyone's entitled to an opinion, but Me Before You is not a movie with a message'
Jojo Moyes' novel Me Before You was a sensation, but reactions to the film version have been somewhat mixed. Moyes and director Thea Sharrock, along with stars Sam Claflin and Emilia Clarke, tell Susan Griffin why the magic of the piece lies in the love story.
Me Before You tells the story of Louisa Clark, a happy-go-lucky 26-year-old who's coasting through life. When she loses her job as a waitress, she begins work as a caregiver to Will Traynor (35), an adrenalin-fuelled banker who's lost the will to live since an accident left him with a spinal cord injury.
After a faltering start, they soon realise they're what the other needs, and a love story ensues.
Where it could've been saccharine, author Jojo Moyes treats their relationship with brilliant and poignant humour, which is largely why the book became a bestseller back in 2012. Now the movie, also adapted by Moyes, directed by Thea Sharrock and starring The Hunger Games' Sam Claflin and Game Of Thrones' Emilia Clarke, has arrived.
Here's what the talent have to say about bringing the cherished story to the cinema.
Thea Sharrock, an acclaimed theatre director - who also helmed the Henry V episode in the BBC's The Hollow Crown series, starring Tom Hiddleston, and a Call The Midwife Christmas special - makes her feature film debut with Me Before You. "I hadn't read the book, so I read the screenplay not knowing anything about it and immediately fell in love with the love story," she reveals.
"I loved the characters, I loved the Englishness of the whole thing, I loved the fairy tale aspect of it and I loved the comedy," adds Sharrock, who turns 40 this year.
"I loved that it was brave enough to put on the table these big discussions, and yet it was a story that's incredibly uplifting and life-affirming."
She was more than aware of the challenges of bringing a bestselling book to the big screen.
"When you read a book, you have a completely different relationship to a character because they're in your head and you have much more time to be with them - it's a solo experience. When you're making a film, you're very conscious of your audience and it being a shared experience."
The London-born director and her team searched "high and low" for the two leads. "It was a very long process, but it culminated in chemistry reads between Clarke and Claflin, and what can I say? It was genuinely magical," Sharrock notes. "It was a joy to harness that and bring it to the screen."
As a screenwriting novice, author Jojo Moyes assumed someone else would be given the task of adapting the novel for screen - but that wasn't the case.
Mum-of-three Moyes was asked if she'd like to do it, and the rest is history.
"I'm one of these people who tends to say yes to stuff before I've thought of the many reasons I should say no," says the 46-year-old, laughing. From the outset, she made the conscious decision "to approach this without ego".
"Just because you know how a book works, doesn't necessarily mean you know how a film works," she admits.
Like the book, the film version raises the right to die debate. However, unlike the novel, the movie has faced backlash from disability activists who've suggested the film sends out the wrong message - that it's better to be dead than disabled.
"The slightly extraordinary thing about this is that in four years, I've never had this type of response, and we've had responses from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation and from quadriplegics, and their care-givers," remarks Moyes.
"Everyone's entitled to their opinion, but this is not a movie with a message, other than perhaps to not judge somebody. This is about one very uncompromising man's choice. It's not a 'how to', it's not got a political message. It's just a human study, which asks: what would you do if you were in somebody's shoes?"
Sharrock's admitted finding an actress to play the effervescent Louisa was tough, while Moyes admits when she heard 'the Khaleesi' from Game Of Thrones was being considered for the role, she "couldn't really see it".
It's not the first time actress Emilia Clarke has faced scepticism by those unable to see beyond her GoT character's abundant white hair (it's a wig) and Mother of Dragons persona. "When I really want a role, and think, 'You really can't see past it?', I'll do a self-tape and send that in," says the 29-year-old, who was drawn to the romantic tale because it doesn't shy away from serious subjects.
"When you've got a love story that's placed in a much more real world than a lot of romcoms, it gives it substance," adds Clarke, who remains ambiguous as to her thoughts on the right to die debate.
"I think the biggest thing with this movie is it simply puts the topic on the table for discussion. Sam, Thea and myself had three months of rehearsals and it was almost the sole topic of conversation.
"Where I came to is, there's no way of answering that question unless you're in that situation yourself, or close to it. I wouldn't insult anyone by trying to answer it."
As for those who are criticising the movie, the actress says: "We had a number of experts on set with us all the time, ensuring we were doing everything we could to be accurate for a movie, and that's the hardest thing."
While her co-star has appeared in The Hunger Games franchise and a Pirates Of The Caribbean movie, ironically, Me Before You proved the most physically challenging role of Sam Claflin's career. "Not only physically but mentally," confesses the 29-year-old, who was only permitted movement from the neck up and in one finger and thumb.
"Putting myself in a certain position every single day was making my body crave movement, and therefore I felt like my brain was working on overdrive. It was mentally draining and I was on a very strict diet [he reportedly lost 40 pounds]. I put myself through hell."
In preparation, he and Sharrock spent time visiting hospitals, talking to specialists and speaking to people in Traynor's position. "We were fortunate to have medical supervisors and people who deal with quadriplegia on a daily basis, and therefore felt like we had the best of the best assisting and making this film."
He believes the movie deals with complicated issues and themes in "a beautifully poetic way".
"It really opened my eyes to a world I wasn't familiar with," the Suffolk-born star continues, "and for me, the story's about the love between these two people that, in a weird way, belong together - despite their differences. That's what's magic to me."
- Me Before You is at cinemas now