Chronic Illness Portrayed in Film

In the past three years, I have spent over 4 months worth of time in hospitals. I go once a week for blood tests to be done, have monthly check ups with different specialists, and have had to drop out of college three times for medical reasons. Chronic illness is something I will deal with for the rest of my life. So, when asked to pick a piece of my identity and its portrayal in the media, I jumped at the opportunity to analyze the way films portray illness. I have always been a movie buff and until I became sick I had never noticed that there is a stereotype of ill people in films. By analyzing Cake, 50/50, and The Fault In Our Stars, I have been able to draw a conclusion that there are certain commonalities between ill protagonists that are persistent throughout film. Sick people are generally stubborn, possess dark humor, and use romance as a coping mechanism throughout film portrayals.

What is chronic illness?

A chronic disease is one lasting 3 months or more, by the definition of the U.S. National Center for Health Statistics. Chronic diseases generally cannot be prevented by vaccines or cured by medication, nor do they just disappear. They vary from terminal illnesses to life long pain disorders. Chronic illness deeply impacts the quality of life for the person suffering through it. It is far more common than people realize and effects around 40% of Americans.

Cake

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P3IsUOSHlnU

“Cake” is about a woman suffering from chronic pain after several traumas. It displays the gritty reality of addiction, pain, and trauma. The film portrays a sort of desperate and lonely former professional who has suffered major losses and trauma and is left with chronic pain. Claire struggles through her pain with addiction to pills. Her sponsor in her support group kills herself and she struggles with visions of this woman throughout the film. She goes to meet this woman’s family and has an affair with her husband. Throughout the film, Claire struggles with both the suicide of the support group member and the trauma of the accident she was in. Claire is unwilling to accept help most of the time, but I think it is clear that she wants to get better. Her struggle is very raw and real throughout the film.

Claire’s addiction to pain pills throughout this film stood out to me. This is such a huge aspect of being chronically ill or dealing with a disease. Pain killers are highly addictive and work wonders for dealing with pain. Once someone gets started on a drug like Vicodin or Oxycontin, it is often incredibly hard to stop, especially if their pain is chronic. Claire’s struggle makes her a more authentic and relatable chronically ill character. Another detail that really stood out to me about Claire was her dark humor. She uses it to combat some of the more annoying questions that come alongside being sick. I appreciated her cynical outlook when she was interacting with people because it can be one of the most frustrating parts about being sick. It is nice to see someone with illness not being weak but rather putting on a brave face to deal with social interaction. Not that she doesn’t break down in more private settings, but her interactions with less intimate characters throughout the film are usually fueled by dark humor.

50/50

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oKD3qelGza8&oref=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.youtube.com%2Fwatch%3Fv%3DoKD3qelGza8&has_verified=1

“50/50” is a movie about a man who is diagnosed with a form of cancer that leaves him with a 50/50 chance at survival. It was created to show that there can be some humor in the darkness of illness and shows a very real portrayal of what a young person being diagnosed with cancer can be like. Adam, the protagonist, deals with his cancer in a very human way with ups and downs. He has a friend that seems to play the comic relief, but Adam has several comic lines as well, making an interesting dark comedy film. Adam goes to therapy as a coping mechanism and falls for his therapist. Adam finds different ways to handle his cancer. The film shows how different people he is close to respond to different parts of his illness. He goes through chemotherapy for a while and then comes the surgery. I felt like it was handled pretty well for a surgery in a movie. (Spoiler alert:) It was a relief that he came out alive because he has a 50/50 shot. It was nice to see him have a happy ending where he found a more real love and has people who want to take care of him. Sometimes movies about disease have really morbid endings and it was nice to not see this here.

Adam was a very relatable character and I feel like the people who created this film went out of their way to make that the case. It was very clear that Adam’s struggle was a true story, making it more authentic to reality. Adam was clearly dealing with a lot but the film did not dwell on the sadness for too long and left plenty of room for happiness.. Adam’s interactions with his mother and other family members are very accurate as well. There were no aggressive romantics throughout the film. The different relationships all had natural dynamics that added to the realness of the film. This film does a great job making Adam’s illness seem real and relatable while not being too gloomy. There are plenty points of seriousness but it is matched with humor.

The Fault In Our Stars

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https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AuVjGbncgQE

“The Fault in Our Stars” was originally written by well known author John Green and adapted into a box office hit movie. It is about two teens suffering from different forms of cancer. Hazel and Augustus meet at a support group and share a quirky romance where they both are cynical and seem sort of like outcasts. They do cute romantic things together and eventually Hazel expresses a desire to go to Amsterdam to track down the author of their favorite book. There are a fair share of hiccups along the way but they end up being able to go because Augustus still has his Make A Wish. The cliches are pretty extreme. The two share a romantic few days in Amsterdam where they go to meet the author. However, when they arrive they are disappointed by what they find. The author is an alcoholic mess who does not have any answers to their questions. Frustrated, they head back to the US. Things start to fall apart when Hazel and Augustus return to the US. Several medical issues later and (spoiler alert) Augustus ends up dying. Hazel and Augustus have written eulogies for each other but when Augustus dies first, Hazel finds out that he has reached out to the author to have it rewritten for him because the author shows up and Augustus’s funeral.

Something that really stood out to me with this film was the aggressive over exaggerations of every single aspect. The behavior of the healthcare professionals seemed really serious and tense. The relationship they shared seemed incredibly dramatic and pretty intensely romantic for a bunch of 16 year olds. Running away to Amsterdam for a week would be amazing, but with the state of my health I don’t think I would be able to do that. The two characters in this film have far more serious and life threatening illnesses than me but somehow were able to get medical clearance for some pretty intense traveling. It was annoying to see something so far fetched happen because it is important to show the reality of illness in order to avoid misconceptions.

It seems kind of hard to be cliche about such an individual situation. I expected this film to be a little more unique because of how quirky the two lead characters were made out to be. There is not really a lot that is cliche about cancer or chronic illness. It is such a unique experience that it is almost frustrating to see it made out to be full of cliche and commonality. The whole Make A Wish concept is an assumed aspect of illness and not something that everyone actually gets the benefit of experiencing. Being sick is not a common experience and everyone deals with it in different and unique ways. For an able bodied author to write a story about two terminally ill teenagers and chalk it full of cliche was incredibly disappointing.

This film was BY FAR the worst representation of sick people in all three films I have analyzed and was a major let down.

Cynical Protagonists and other Commonalities

A major commonality I noticed between all three of these films was how cynical the protagonists were, especially to able bodied and healthy people. In a way, this behavior sort of participates in the “other-ing” of sick people from healthy people. Adam and his friend in 50/50 have frequently comedic dialogue, this is less harmful then the conversations in The Fault In Our Stars. Hazel and Augustus are cynics towards the support group they are in and assume nobody else could understand them. In Cake, Claire uses a lot of dark humor in her interactions with most people. All of these behaviors are making fun of the situations that these protagonists are in. While I am all for using humor as a coping mechanism, it is important to grasp the realism of disease too. I think that 50/50 is the only film that manages to do this, probably because it was a true story. Maybe if The Fault In Our Stars had been a true story it could be more relatable for chronically sick people.

Why is this important?

  • 40% of Americans struggle with chronic diseases
  • 100 million Americans suffer from chronic pain
  • More than 75% of all health care costs are due to chronic conditions in the US
  • 40 million Americans are limited in their usual activities due to one or more chronic health conditions

(National Health Council)

In my research, I found that media coverage of health care access focused on problems encountered by insured Americans and ignored the struggle of uninsured and other disadvantaged populations (Hannay). It was also drawn to my attention that media coverage of chronic illness relied heavily on narratives depicting the challenges faced by patients and their care givers but overlooked the big picture problems with health care. In a lot of cases, coverage of chronic illness is negative, with patients portrayed as hopeless victims who burdened their families (Hannay). These common practices in the media do not cover the full scale impact of chronic disease and give an inaccurate portrayal.

What needs to change?

Education is the vital beginning piece to solving most cultural issues, in my opinion. Film-makers need to consult with people who have struggled with the illnesses being portrayed in order to create a more understanding environment over chronic illness. Bringing reality to chronically ill people in movies can help those who do not understand illness get an insight into what it is like. It can help bridge the divide between able-bodied, healthy people, and sick people so that there can be a better understanding of what life can be like as a chronically ill person. Perpetuating false information and stereotypes can lead to assumptions that can be damaging to the societal view of chronically ill people (Schatman). Spreading false information can be damaging to chronically ill people and their societal representation.

Conclusion

I can only hope that with time and attention that the portrayal of chronically ill people will change. I think a big part of this is to open up the dialogue to different aspects of sick people’s lives in film besides romance. If films portrayed disadvantaged populations and real stories, then  I think society would potentially have a different view of chronically ill people. It should be a requirement to have movies that are about chronic illness consult with someone who has been affected by the disease they are portraying. If film producers ran their assumptions by chronically ill people before creating a film full of false accounts then there would be a very different portrayal of sick people in the media.

It is “time for the media to set up to the plate, and consider writing legitimate stories that may actually help patients with pain — and assist those of us who are trying our best to aid them” – Michael Schatman

Learning Moments

  1. In Week 3, I was fascinated by Berger’s analysis of advertisements. It drew attention to anomalies in advertising that I had never noticed before. I found it fascinating to watch the advertisements morph from one to the next in Berger’s video and noted that it has changed from TV ads to social media. It is obvious that brands copy the techniques of other brands when it comes to advertising, but it is not something I was aware of until I watched this piece.
  2. In Week 5, I was most captivated by the USC research study and Every Single Word videos. The videos highlighted how infrequently minority characters play roles in major blockbuster films. I was not even aware of how often this occurs until seeing these videos and the USC research backed all of the video’s with their findings. It was apparent that women and minorities are majorly underrepresented and often underpaid. It was apparent that POC had small supporting roles and white actors were more often the leads. This is something I am now noticing in everything I watch.

Works Cited

About Chronic Diseases. (2014, July 29). Retrieved May 21, 2017, from http://www.nationalhealthcouncil.org/sites/default/files/NHC_Files/Pdf_Files/AboutChronicDisease.pdf

Barnz, D. (Director). (2014). Cake [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Cinelou Releasing, Freestyle Releasing.

Boone, J. (Director), & Green, J. (Writer). (2014). The Fault In Our Stars [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: 20th Century Fox.

J, Hannay. “”Chronically Distorted”: Report Examines Media Portrayal of Chronic Illness and Health Care Access.” RWJF. Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, 09 June 2015. Web. 15 May 2017.

Levine, J. (Director). (2011). 50 /50 [Motion picture on DVD]. United States: Summit Entertainment.

Schatman, Michael E. “The American chronic pain crisis and the media: about time to get it right?” Journal of Pain Research 8.2015 (2015): 885-87. PubMed Central. Web. 14 May 2017. <https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4687984/&gt;.

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6 thoughts on “Chronic Illness Portrayed in Film

  1. I have just stumbled over here during my regular WordPress reader routine, and I just wanted to say that I really appreciate the thoughtful effort that you put into your posts. It is so refreshing to see citations to highlight research and attribution. Looking forward to following!

  2. Hanna, your findings really mirrored my findings as well (though I focused on mental health as opposed to your focus, both are chronic). I never saw The Fault in Our Stars and, while I never really had much desire to, after reading your blog post I really do not want to see it. It’s appalling that able-bodied people are able to write these gratuitously successful stories with really no anchoring in reality and without consulting with people who could lend credibility to the story. And people eat it up, like it’s so deep and so true, when really it’s complete fiction. When you mentioned that Augustus “still had his Make-A-Wish” like everyone just gets one free with diagnosis I actually rolled my eyes.

    One other thing I really appreciated was mentioning the dark humor. I’ve developed a pretty dark sense of humor myself to cope with the things I have to deal with, so that put a smile on my face.

    Great read, thank you so much for sharing! (:

    • Thank you so much for your comments Rose! I am about to go read your post, as I imagine we had some similar findings. I’m glad you liked reading about chronic illness in films and hope it was an informative read!! 🙂

  3. Hanna M,
    I enjoyed your post and found your bit in regards to “The Fault In Our Stars” very interesting and important. You mention that everything in the movie is so extreme and exaggerated; of course, it seems that almost all movies exaggerate but I have definitely noticed that movies that deal with any sort of real illness do this to an extreme level. Another point you made that I found interesting was your point about the unrealistic romance between the two teenagers. Though this seems pretty common, I have noticed that people often overlook so many ridiculous things in movies when the movie is centered around romance. I find it very amusing and confusing that people become so infatuated and consumed by romances on “the big screen.”

  4. Hi Hanna,
    In really liked your post and thought that the topic was very interesting. My aunt has Fibromyalgia and before being diagnosed with this she spent so much time in the doctors who just passed her around and gave her different labels. I think that it is important for people to be aware of chronic illnesses and how they effect people. One of the things that I have seen from my own personal experience is that people often do not take chronic illnesses seriously and people view them as being “fake”. Some people view people with chronic illnesses as being hypochondriacs which does not make life any easier for the people who are suffering from these conditions. I think that your post was very informative and eye opening.

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