Better Bound: Before I Die by Jenny Downham (Book + Movie Review)

beforeidieSome genres I avoid like the plague, and anything avoiding dying children is one of them. Before I Die by Jenny Downham may as well have had a giant red sticker visible only to me that said: “Don’t Read Me, You’ll Cry for Hours.” Despite the ominous title, I picked it up and read it in three sittings.

Before I Die can be easily summarized as a teenage version of The Bucket List. That also seems like an unfair comparison. Tessa has had leukemia for four years and when she finds that she only has a few months to live she decides to make a list on her wall.

The list is everything she wants to do before she dies. Some things are reckless like breaking the law and taking drugs. Other items are really sweet, such as getting her parents back together and falling in love. She sets out to complete this list with the help of her friend Zoey and her parents. While Tessa is determined to finish her list, she is also falling in love with Adam from next door. Adam becomes instrumental in helping her cross off the items on her list, but he also helps her realize what’s really important, and it’s things that Tessa doesn’t think are important when she creates the list.

It feels odd to say that I like this book; instead, I feel like it is more accurate to say that I like Tessa. Tessa is a really funny character who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to go after it.

The book is about much more than a girl with terminal cancer. It’s about a girl who realizes what’s important in life. The thing is, you know that some of these things aren’t going to happen because Tessa lives in a clock.

The first few things on Tessa’s list are frivolous. In the first few chapters, Tessa is determined to cross the first item off her list: sex. She goes out with Zoey and they meet two boys in a club. Tessa is less than impressed with the results. The next few items on Tessa’s list involve breaking the law, taking drugs, and saying yes to everything for just one day. By the end of the book, items on her list start to include things like getting her parents back together, having Adam move in, and meeting Zoey’s baby.

The list of things she’ll miss also grows. She talks about how she’ll miss breathing, and talking, and windows and then ultimately she starts adding in items that will come with age like a joint bank account and experiences that she is worried she won’t get to experience one final time.

It’s impossible not to cry as you reach the end of the book, and it’s even harder to cry at the movie.

In 2012, Before I Die was adapted into a movie called Now Is Good. Aside from getting a new title, the movie seems to stay true to the subject matter of the book. Tessa (Dakota Fanning) makes a list and approaches it with the same zeal as Tess did in the book.

One of the biggest changes is the opening. While Tessa does sleep with Jake in the book the scene plays out much differently in the movie. In the movie, Tessa is wearing a blonde wig, which falls out as they start to make out, terrifying Jake. This added detail was a great laugh at the start of a movie that was sure to be sad.

The rest of the cast does a great job in their roles and they each stay true to the persona in the book. Zoey (Kaya Scodelario) is the same friend who helps Tessa get on with her list. One of the scenes I most enjoyed from the film involved them fulfilling the “Break the Law” wish. Adam (Jeremy Irvine) is a little different from the book, in that he has fewer worries in his life. While Adam still lost his dad to a motor vehicle accident his mom is not nearly as broken as she appears in the books.


Her family unit is pretty true to itself as well. She still has her little brother Cal (Edgar Canham) who doesn’t quite get what’s going on but still performs “Keep Death Away” spells to try and save his sister. Father (Paddy Considine) is a hovering helicopter dad who wants to cure her cancer. Mother (Olivia Williams is the one character I wish they’d portrayed more like the book.

In both mediums, Tessa has two polar opposite parents. Her dad is obsessed with trying to cure her cancer while her mom can’t stand to be in the hospital. In the book, Tessa’s mother had a bit more history. Tessa talks about her mom left when she was twelve and came back after her diagnosis. There is also this slow reconciliation in the books that is not present in the film.

The other thing to note is that things happen in the book a little differently. They aren’t major changes, it’s more that they cut out little moments but still find a way to work the sentiment around them back into the story. The things that they changes were all things I was okay with. In the end, they stayed true to the spirit of the book and I still sobbed like a baby at the very end.

In the end, the book is probably better than the movie by a narrow margin, but if you want to get all the crying out of the way quickly then watch the movie.

Have you read Before I Die? Have you seen Now is Good? Let me know your thoughts on the book and the movie in the comments below. 

Published by Lauren Busser

Lauren Busser is a fiction writer and essayist. She is an associate editor at Tell-Tale TV, where she writes about all things tv. She has had fiction appear in five : 2 : one magazine’s #thesideshow and her nonfiction has appeared in Bitch Media and The Hartford Courant. You can find her talking about tv, film, and knitting on Twitter @LaurenBusser.

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