There’s never been a better time to get sick on screen. Recently our cinemas have been taken over by a glut of films about illness, including the critically acclaimed titles The Fault in Our Stars, The Theory of Everything, Still Alice and Amour. There’s more to come, with discussion already beginning online about the forthcoming teen-cancer flick, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which received a standing ovation when it premiered at this year’s Sundance Festival. Disease, it would seem, is en vogue.
Of course, films about illness are nothing new. Tear-jerkers like My Sister’s Keeper, A Walk to Remember and Stepmom have long entertained us with their sentimental take on terminal illness. When talking about films concerning terminal illness the term ‘spoiler’ doesn’t really apply, for obvious reasons. The plots therefore follow a reasonably predictable arc: a loved individual discovers that they have an incurable disease, and their family struggle to support them until their actual or assumed demise. These films excite our sympathies, arouse our compassion and even remind us of our own vulnerability; it could be me, my sister, my mother, my beloved. They also give us a chance for emotional release and the hope of life beyond grief. Often we see the surviving characters moving on, making peace with the world and finding a way to live again beyond their loss.
What Hollywood is doing now, however, is something different. It is confronting stories that do not have a neat beginning, middle and end – where people suffer and go on suffering without sign of relief. Take The Theory of Everything, the story of a man who was given two years to live and has now lived another 50 plus, entirely reliant on the people around him and the technology they can provide. The plot of this heartbreaking film shows how Stephen Hawking’s survival has been both a triumph and, in its own way, a kind of tragedy for those who love him most.
The same bittersweet mood hangs over Still Alice, in which the central character is diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s. At one point Alice claims that she wishes she had cancer. “People wear pink ribbons for you and go on long walks,” she says. There is a sense that there is still a battle to be fought, rather than simply a surrender to the perceived loss of her personhood.
Cake, starring Jennifer Aniston, is perhaps the grittiest example of this new type of story, showing a woman’s tooth-and-nail struggle with chronic pain that cannot be escaped and seems to have no end date. She is angry, stubborn and fascinated by the idea of suicide – not an easy woman to get along with, and the sympathy we feel for her is not uncomplicated.
Even Dallas Buyers Club focusses primarily on its main characters’ attempts to medicate themselves to slow the progress of the cruel, stigmatised disease that is slowly killing them. Does their predicament excuse, or soften, their illegal activities? Are they really criminals or victims? The film offers few answers.
These films are tragedies without the catharsis. They depict the suffering, but not the release. They therefore pose us a challenge – what is the limit to our compassion? When the story is not going to reach a neat ending – either a recovery or a death – how long can we keep caring? By extension, what about in the real world? How long can we go on engaging, loving, tirelessly caring when there is no end in sight?
The question is painfully pertinent for Christians. We are following an unchanging Saviour in a mile-a-minute culture. How far does our love and patience extend? How long are we willing to be compassionate, to walk with someone in their sufferings, to pray for them, to cry with them and to hope for them? How far are we able to trust God with the future and with their future, whatever and whenever it comes?
‘Sick lit’ may not always be edifying, and it may not always be uplifting, but on our screens it is finding new ways of helping us to think about our humanity and mortality. And I for one am not sick of it yet.