There are so many film and television characters who have illnesses, terminal diseases, or some other condition, that these programs should have their own genre. Most of the time, disappointingly, these characters are defined by their illnesses. They become vehicles for the story of their poor health, rather than being full-fledged characters who happen to be sick. Even worse, these maladies sometimes become a deus ex machina, prompting an abrupt — if not forcibly tragic — end to the story.
For Pain Awareness Month, I wanted to find characters in film and television who may suffer from chronic pain, but aren’t defined by it.
In my research, I’ve come across a lot of films about people with illnesses that are specifically defined. There are tons of films about HIV and AIDS, cancer or living with cancer, mental illnesses, and so on.
But I wanted to focus on specifically chronic pain. Pain that is persistent, and isn’t necessarily brought about from the above ailments. In 2014, the independent film Cake, directed by Daniel Barnz, features Jennifer Aniston delivering a raw and uncomfortable performance, for all the right reasons. Aniston plays Clare Bennett, a car-crash survivor whose injuries cause her severe chronic pain. Is this really the only film that comes up when looking for characters with chronic pain?
A central theme of Cake is Clare’s addiction to pain killers. This same theme shows up with another famous chronic pain sufferer, Dr. Gregory House. In the Fox series, cranky curmudgeon Dr. House and his team solve tricky diagnoses and navigate even trickier relationships. According to show canon, House suffered a blood clot in his leg that lead to an infarction, leaving him in chronic pain. He relies on Vicodin and a revolving door of other painkillers and alcohol to manage his pain.
Though this is a reality for a lot of chronic pain sufferers, many forums I found were for communities that wanted to clear the stigma that all chronic pain sufferers are painkiller addicts, or just in it for the high. As much as Dr. House is characterized by his addiction, he is still a brilliant doctor who helps people who have been failed by other doctors. That’s a situation which he knows all too well.
When The Pain Is A Supporting Character
I saw The Fault in Our Stars begrudgingly, as a favor to a friend. I didn’t expect it to be half as good as it was. The 2014 Josh Boone film based on John Green’s tearjerker novel about young cancer patients in love turned out to be just that: a film about love. Main character Hazel Grace Lancaster (Shailene Woodley) has thyroid cancer that has spread to her lungs. She wheels an oxygen tank with her wherever she goes, the outside manifestation of the burden of her illness.
Though cancer diagnoses are what introduce Hazel and Augustus (Ansel Elgort), their love story is still genuine and touching — made tragic because it’s chaperoned by their respective diseases. They go on dates, trips, spend time together talking about literature, all while living with their own versions of chronic pain. While you spend the majority of the film rooting for their them, their happiness and their young love, detours of anguish make their healing all the more laborious and satisfying.
Cake: A Portrait of Chronic Pain
What I found most mesmerizing in Cake was Aniston’s physical performance. She literally looked like she was in excruciating physical pain the entire film. She is cranky, acerbic and unapologetic. She made me uncomfortable to watch her, which was the entire point!
Her performance reminded me of times I experienced a painful hinderance or tried to support a loved one who has. Did I think her portrayal was accurate? I don’t know, because pain is different for everyone. And for many, pain is invisible. This is the challenge for most characters in film and television: how do you show, in a visual medium, an ailment that can’t be seen?
If you suffer from chronic pain, you know the lack of representation and diversity. But until there is more light on this subject, we can hope that the characters in TV and film who are experiencing chronic pain or illnesses are portrayed as people. Fully realized people, flaws and all, who aren’t defined by their pain.