The Topic of Cancer (Part One)


After reading about the upcoming adaptation of Jenny Downham’s novel Before I Die, I was prompted to reconsider the many films I’ve seen which deal with the theme of terminal cancer. Before I Die, or Now is Good, as the film has been re-titled, follows the final months of teenager Tessa’s life as she attempts to experience several rites of passage before dying. As Little White Lies journalist Jessica Lambert noted in an impressively well-written review, the new title is more ‘cosy’ than Downham’s original. The alteration is symptomatic of a paradoxical tendency to ‘shy away from the heavy stuff’, which perhaps occurs to maximise the film’s appeal for younger viewers.

Dakota Fanning as Tessa in Ol Parker’s upcoming Now is Good.

In my opinion, this is not the first time that marketing has treated a film focussing on an individual’s struggle with cancer in a less than appropriate manner. Last year’s 50/50 was inexplicably promoted as ‘the cancer comedy’. This does justice neither to the horrifying experiences of real-life cancer sufferers, nor to the emotional depth 50/50’s leads bring to the story of the film’s protagonist, 27 year-old Adam (the versatile Joseph Gordon-Levitt).

This is not to say that films about cancer can’t be funny. For example, Rob Reiner’s 2007 outing, The Bucket List, boasts a sharp, witty script featuring Morgan Freeman performing wise-cracks such as ‘oh, you know, fighting for my life’ when asked what he is up to. However, comedy must not take precedence over intelligent and sensitive treatment of such an emotionally charged topic. For example, Judd Apatow’s Funny People lacks emotional depth due to its determination to live up to the comedic calibre of his earlier films, Superbad and Knocked Up.

Instead I believe a recipe for an effective, emotive and tasteful exploration of cancer requires the inclusion of moderated graphic detail. Nick Cassavete’s adaptation of Jodi Picoult’s novel My Sister’s Keeper cannot be accused of shying away from the ‘heavy stuff’; teenage cancer patient Kate (Sofia Vassilieva) vomits blood on screen, and is adorned with painted on bruises by a talented make-up team. The Bucket List is similarly frank in its portrayal of the chemotherapy side-effects experienced by Edward (Jack Nicholson at his surly best). The detail of physical affliction is well-judged in each case; a high level of verisimilitude is achieved without over-doing the gore to an extent which may alienate audiences.

Abigail Breslin, Sofia Vassilieva and Jason Patric in My Sister’s Keeper (2009).

The Bucket List appears to have influenced later cancer stories in multiple ways, not only with the now-formulaic charting of characters as they attempt to fulfil their ambitions in fast-forward, but also with its focus on human relationships. Edward (Nicholson) and Carter (Freeman) may be brought together by inhabiting the same hospital room, but it is their developing friendship which creates the film’s hook.

Furthermore, the best cancer movies are those where the disease is not the only focus of the narrative. Picoult’s My Sister’s Keeper brought surprise and originality to an often-told story which usually has a more predictable ending. Although the novel’s twist was re-written in Cassavete’s screenplay, I found Picoult’s plot both refreshing and devastating in the creation of the Fitzgerald family, who would ultimately lose not one, but two, of their children.

As well as butchering the narrative (read more on this here), Cassavete’s adaptation is structurally clumsy. Flashbacks are used throughout, and one in particular, dealing with the cancer of Kate’s boyfriend and fellow patient Taylor, is overly long. This risks fracturing audiences’ emotional and mental attachment to the primary narrative.

Structural experimentation is common across the genre, both in film and literature. For me, nothing beats the premise of Alice Kuipers’ novel Life on the Refrigerator Door, a heart-wrenching fly-on-the-wall glance into the home of a busy cancer-riddled mother and her daughter. Their story is told exclusively through the notes they leave for each other on the fridge – physical records of last months spent apart rather than together.

Also worth a watch is Gus Van Sant’s latest, Restless, a beautifully quirky indie rooted in teenager Annabel Cotton’s experience of both illness and love, which features a knockout lead performance from Aussie Mia Wasikowska. Another literary adaptation, Ken Kwapis’ re-telling of Ann Brashare’s The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants, proves that cancer storylines can also be handled respectfully even as sub-plots which occupy relatively little screen time.

Now is Good is released in the UK on 21 September.

Now read Part Two to see what I thought of Now is Good.

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