The heroes of Nicholas Sparks’ novels are ordinary folk. That’s not a value judgment; that’s how they describe themselves. In the movie version of Sparks’ 1998 book Message In A Bottle, the late wife of shipwright Garret Blake (played by Kevin Costner) hails him as “a person rich in simple treasures, self-made and self-taught.” That kind of faint praise counts as thundering acclaim in Sparks-land, where celebrating the unexceptional is central to the overall aesthetic. Over and over, Sparks’ books tell stories of women and men who turn their backs on potential wealth and prestige so they can lead lives of quiet dignity—often in the coastal Carolinas—with salt-of-the-earth romantic partners who like to work with their hands and be left the hell the alone.
I’m not here to knock Sparks around—nor to act as apologist. When I received the seven-disc Nicholas Sparks Limited Edition DVD Collection in the mail a couple of weeks ago, I mainly looked on it as an opportunity to understand why the big-screen adaptations of Sparks’ books have been so popular. How many authors have become brands in the movie business the way Sparks has? There’s Stephen King, John Grisham… and few others, aside from authors who’ve created a franchise (like J.K. Rowling with Harry Potter, or Suzanne Collins with The Hunger Games) or a popular recurring character (like Ian Fleming’s James Bond or Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan). Yet year after year, audiences turn out for films with different titles, different characters, different stars, and different plots—more or less—all because of the words “based on a novel by Nicholas Sparks.”
So I watched all seven of the movies in the DVD set—plus The Last Song, which isn’t included—in about a three-day stretch, and I have to admit that after a while, they began to run together. In the middle of The Lucky One, I started to wonder what had happened to the compassionate young heiress played by Amanda Seyfried, until I remembered she isn’t the girlfriend of Zac Efron’s soldier in The Lucky One, she’s the girlfriend of Channing Tatum’s soldier in Dear John. I frequently lost track of which quaint resort town I was visiting, and what terrible incident from the past still needed to be faced. The common-man characters and seaside settings aren’t the only core elements in the Sparks formula. There’s also:
The first Sparks novel to be made into a movie (in 1999) was his second published book, Message In A Bottle. In the film, reporter Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright) happens upon a letter that grieving boat-builder Garret sent to his late wife, and while she’s investigating the story, the two fall in love. This idea of people finding each other against impossible odds recurs in Sparks’ work. It’s what drives 2012’s The Lucky One, where U.S. Marine Logan Thibault (Efron) goes looking for the woman whose picture he believed saved his life in combat. It’s there in subtler ways, too, in 2008’s Nights In Rodanthe, where troubled surgeon Paul Flanner (Richard Gere) is the only guest at a beachfront bed-and-breakfast being looked after by divorcée Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane), and ends up needing her redemptive goodwill as much as she needs his sensual attention. And synchronicity plays a major role in 2013’s Safe Haven, where fugitive Erin Tierney (Julianne Hough) takes comfort in the arms of widowed father Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel), thanks—spoiler—to the guidance of the ghost of his late wife (Cobie Smulders). Yep, that’s right: the ghost of his late wife.
When Theresa finds Garret’s note in Message In A Bottle, she looks at the weathered bottle it came in and wonders whether the letter is 100 years old. Later, when she meets Garret, she’s impressed that he specializes in building and repairing wooden boats. In 2002’s A Walk To Remember, popular high-school jerk Landon Carter (Shane West) is softened by his association with bookish nerd Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore), and is taken by her fascination with astronomy. In The Notebook, poor kid Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) honors his stalled romance with the wealthy Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams) by single-handedly restoring the crumbling old house where they once stole away for an attempted tryst. Characters in Sparks stories collect coins, paint rooms, fashion stained-glass windows, read dusty paperbacks, play instruments, and hand-write letters and journals—all in an effort to preserve the past.
The Sparks movies aren’t chaste. Their lovers are lovers, who fall into bed together with an all-consuming need, like people who’ve just gotten a cast taken off and can’t wait to scratch. Even in the otherwise sexless A Walk To Remember, where goody-two-shoes preacher’s kid Jamie falls in love with the town bad boy—then reveals that she has terminal cancer—the couple gets married, which is the film’s way of suggesting Jamie at least got a little action before she died. But A Walk To Remember is also true to the Sparks pattern, in that the lovers have to wait. No one gets it easy in these movies. There’s a lot of holding back for the right moment—most notably in The Notebook, where Noah and Allie actually start having sex, then stop, only to pick up where they left off a decade later.
Duty vs. self
In Message In A Bottle, Garret has a hard time committing to Theresa because he feels like he’s betraying his late wife. Jamie’s father in A Walk To Remember worries Landon will lead her away from God. Allie’s mother in The Notebook says she once had an affair with a working-class slob like Noah, but gave it up for the good of their family name. In Nights In Rodanthe, Adrienne’s teenage daughter accuses mom of selfishness, blaming her for divorcing her adulterous husband. Dear John’s Army sergeant John Tyree (Tatum) feels obliged to sign up for a second tour of duty after 9/11, even though it means more time apart from his girlfriend Savannah (Seyfried). Throughout these films, characters face a choice when they fall in love. They’re never allowed to have everything they want. Someone or something has to suffer.
For the most part, the films based on Sparks’ books resemble classic boy-meets-girl/boy-loses-girl movie romances, but they betray their novelistic origins in the preponderance of subplots and backstory. In Message In A Bottle, Garret has a long-running feud with his late wife’s brother-in-law, who blames him for her death. In Nights In Rodanthe, Paul is at the bed-and-breakfast in the first place because he’s meeting the husband of a woman who died on his operating table. In The Last Song, the heroine’s father Steve (Greg Kinnear) has been falsely accused of burning down a local church. And so on. These little detours might make for a fuller reading experience, but in the movies, they just mean a lot of extra doors to close. The second halves of most Sparks movies don’t just concern themselves with whether the love story is going to have a happy ending, but also with patching up old wounds, in one tearjerking scene after another.
Say this for Sparks: He isn’t afraid of tragic endings. (Brace for spoilers.) Message In A Bottle ends with Garret deciding he might be ready for a real relationship with Theresa, right before he dies at sea while trying to rescue a stranded boater. Jamie in A Walk To Remember dies of cancer, like Steve in The Last Song and Savannah’s husband in Dear John. (John’s father in Dear John dies too, but of a stroke.) Other dead spouses and/or siblings figure prominently in Message In A Bottle, Safe Haven, The Last Song, and The Lucky One. In The Notebook, the lovers don’t die until they’re very old, but they do die at the end, in each other’s arms. Over the years, Sparks films have been killing off the main characters less and the main characters’ relatives more. But always, somebody has to die.
Here’s another noticeable trend in the Sparks adaptations: They’ve been getting weaker, perhaps because the source material has become less inspired. The early Sparks books have killer hooks, such as the letter in Message In A Bottle, and the way an aged Noah (James Garner) reads to the now-senile Allie (Gena Rowlands) in The Notebook, reminding her of their story. The later Sparks books are less gimmicky, which works against the movie versions. In the absence of “the big idea,” films like The Lucky One and The Last Song don’t have much reason to exist. They’re just phony love stories, with no compensatory grandeur.
By and large, that’s also true of the filmmaking. When Message In A Bottle came out, it was panned (and Costner was nominated for a Razzie), but relative to what came later especially, it isn’t a bad film. It’s anchored by strong performances from Costner, Wright, and Paul Newman (as Garret’s father), and there’s a fullness to the picture overall, as it ranges from North Carolina to Chicago and back again, with a Gabriel Yared score that recalls classic Hollywood melodramas. The Notebook also feels like an honest-to-goodness movie, with director Nick Cassavetes bringing real lyricism to its depiction of the past. Since then, though, the Sparks film that comes closest to being aesthetically satisfying is Dear John, directed by veteran Swedish filmmaker Lasse Hallström, who has the benefit of two attractive stars with actual charisma and acting chops: Tatum and Seyfried. Hallström also helmed Safe Haven, but couldn’t do much with semi-pro actress Hough as his lead. Other Sparks adaptations have been saddled with the likes of Moore and Miley Cyrus. The polish and professionalism that distinguished Message In A Bottle and The Notebook (and Dear John) is largely absent in the other films.
Why is this? Maybe because melodramas—or what’s often derisively known as “women’s pictures” or (ugh) “chick flicks”—don’t get the careful attention they did in the 1940s and 1950s. As with modern romantic comedies, there’s a sense with romantic tearjerkers that no matter the quality, critics will be dismissive and audiences will turn out in droves. So the Sparks films are lazily formulaic, piling on the pathos rather than trying to earn emotion honestly.
And that’s a shame, because there are elements in the Sparks movies that are worth preserving. This may seem shallow, but the locations for these stories are gorgeous—and refreshingly specific. They don’t take place in “the city,” or in some backlot Middle America. Nearly all of these movies make good use of real places like the Outer Banks of North Carolina, bringing in bits of the region’s culture and character.
The Sparks films also nearly always take the time to show how people fall in love: not just through narrative contrivance (though there’s plenty of that), but through conversation and little adventures. Sometimes the lovers get caught in a terrible storm, as in Nights In Rodanthe, and sometimes they’re just sailing in a boat, as in Message In A Bottle. But it’s always through doing things together—and talking all the while—that the characters get on the same wavelength. My favorite scenes of each of these movies inevitably come about a half an hour in, when all the meet-cute and hate-at-first-sight is out of the way, and the two leads begin to thrill to the possibility that they could reshape their world and their life plans around each other.
That’s why the best moment in all the Sparks films is in The Notebook, when Allie and Noah are preparing to make love for the first time, and she takes off her clothes while looking him straight in the eye, simultaneously nervous and excited. What they’re doing, they’re doing in secret, so her eyes are wide and twinkling, as though she’s discovered some amazing hideaway that no one yet knows about. This is the reason for all the “just a common man with common thoughts” business in the Sparks adaptations. Even at their best, these movies regard human beings the way vacationers regard a favorite hole-in-the-wall restaurant: as something to be appreciated quietly, before the tourists ruin it or the health department shuts it down.