This weekend, the latest Nicholas Sparks joint hits theaters. The Longest Ride is the story of the furious romance between a bull rider and an art enthusiast, united by their love of rustic settings, immaculate sunsets, and tasteful PG-13 humping. Sparks’ adaptations have long been punchlines, considered trite and melodramatic, but what we’re here to talk about today isn’t the relative quality or lack thereof offered by the nine films that have been adapted from his work over the past 16 years.
No, today we’re here to talk about how goddamned crazy these movies are. There’s a genuine camp appeal to be found in many of the Sparks adaptations, just because his films can and frequently do go to absurd lengths to place insurmountable odds between his star-crossed lovers. These range from amnesia to tragic violence to acts of nature and a cruel, vicious God who appears to hate these perfectly nice people who just want to live in the American South and almost kiss. So join us for a different kind of memorable walk, a walk through the most outlandish things Sparks adaptations have done for the sake of dramatic tension.
Also, spoilers ahead. We’re spoiling the hell out of these movies.
Message in a Bottle (1999)
Kevin Costner plays Garret, a poetic seaman in mourning for Catherine, his dead wife, in Message in a Bottle. Hope arrives, however, in a Chicago reporter who’s found one of the many love letters he tucks into bottles and casts into the ocean, where all ghosts reside. Deciding that his new love is strong enough to free him from mourning, he writes one last letter and sets sail (on a boat named after his dead wife) to cast it away. Unfortunately, a storm strikes. A wild one. And Garret spots a family of three sinking. Heroically, he sacrifices his life to save them. And what the fuck, dude.
DUDE, you could’ve just thrown it from the shore. Catherine doesn’t care. She’s dead. Or maybe she does. Maybe she cares too much. Maybe this is what she wanted all along, to lure Garret out to sea so he can (literally) drown in his mourning. Because that is seriously the best explanation for this ending: Garret was killed by the jealous ghost of his ex-wife. —Randall Colburn
A Walk to Remember (2002)
In Roger Ebert’s review of A Walk to Remember, he called the film “a small treasure.” I wouldn’t go that far, but I will say that I do not loathe A Walk to Remember as much as other films in Sparks’ oeuvre; in truth, I think it’s kind of sweet. Perhaps my initial liking of this film is because it was one of Sparks’ first outings with his still not-so-original narrative of young love in the face of parental disapproval and/or impending death (Walk is Sparks’ third novel and second film adaptation), a trusty template now as old and crusty as stale bread. And sure, this love story is so syrupy sweet that you might feel cavities forming as you watch it — it’s all very Dawson’s Creek, down to the small town in North Carolina setting — but unless you’re offended by one of the main characters being a devout Christian who is slightly annoying in her purity of heart, it’s not particularly dumb nor offensive. Landon and Jamie’s relationship develops nicely over time, and their romance, although hackneyed, is believable.
One section is a little weird, though. You see, Landon and his other cool, tough-guy friends have spent the first quarter of the movie teasing poor, mousy, pastor’s daughter Jamie because, um, she wears the same sweater every day? But then Jamie walks on stage during a school play with her hair down and curled, wearing a face full of makeup and a clingy dress, and whammo! Landon is in love. Not only does the Mandy Moore pop star moment feel out of place, but it also kind of sucks that it takes a curling iron, makeup, and décolletage for Landon to see Jaime in a whole new light. Plus, if you’re not keen on Moore’s breathy singing voice, or the idea that Landon would feel the urge to make out with Jamie immediately after watching her sing about how Jesus is her only hope, then you probably won’t like this scene, either. —Leah Pickett
The Notebook (2004)
We can only really poke so much fun at The Notebook since it’s arguably the only Sparks adaptation on this list that actually makes for a pretty good movie. It earns its sentiment and emotion, particularly in the harrowing, climacting meltdown when Gena Rowlands’ dementia-suffering Allie loses herself in a fit of panic over her inability to recognize Noah (James Garner), the love of her life. It’s genuinely heartbreaking, and it’s the one time when a Sparks film’s late-game twist of cruel fate actually works.
However, the most outlandish moment in The Notebook is its least savory one: that whole bit when Noah, as a strapping young lad played by Ryan Gosling, threatens Allie (Rachel McAdams) with the prospect of watching him die if she won’t go on a date with him. After taking a running leap onto a moving Ferris Wheel, Noah busts up Allie’s date with another man to beg for a date with her instead, in a moment that’s apparently romantic and totally not creepy or insane in the slightest. And then they lived happily ever after, the result of a suicide-based meet cute. It’s so sweet. It’s just like New Moon! —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
Because Nights in Rodanthe is a Nicholas Sparks movie, Diane Lane and Richard Gere fall in love in, like, a day. And because Nights in Rodanthe is a Nicholas Sparks movie, Gere dies the minute they separate. This sends Diane Lane into a spiraling depression that causes her to alienate her pre-teen kids because they’re not as good as this dude she just boned for a few days.
As she takes a weepy daytime stroll on the Pacific shoreline, however, her face lights up, contorting into a near-orgasmic display of exhilaration. “He’s alive!” I screamed at my TV. “We never saw his body, did we?” I waited for the camera was to reveal Gere, barefoot and sun-dappled, strolling towards her.
When perspective shifts we see not a comically handsome fiftysomething, but a dozen horses barreling toward her. Yes, this sort of thing happens on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, but the way it comes out of nowhere is a goddamned revelation. My only quibble? Gere’s face not being CGI’d onto one of the horses. —Randall Colburn
Dear John (2010)
Dear John is a relatively straight-faced entry into the Sparks canon, what with its leaden emphasis on war, duty, and the American Dream. Perhaps that’s why Sparks felt the need to overindulge the melodrama. It’s hard to pinpoint a particular moment of crazy, but note this: Dear John features a young child with autism, an old man with autism, a man dying of terminal cancer, a soldier being gunned down in Afghanistan, and, oh yeah, 9/11. 9/11 is basically the reason for this film. So, yeah, just know what you’re getting into with this one. —Randall Colburn
The Last Song (2010)
Because this is a “Nicholas Sparks Production,” we know that somebody is going to die. But who will it be? Will it be Ronnie (Miley Cyrus), the spiteful brat who hates that she has to live with her dad (Greg Kinnear) at his idyllic beach house for the summer and would much rather frolic with a hunky stranger (Liam Hemsworth, Cyrus’ future ex-fiancé)? Will it be her little brother Jonah, ostensibly included for comic relief, or will it be the man-hunk (no, not the man-hunk!)? Negative on all counts, but if you guessed the thankless dad, ring-a-ding-ding! You are the winner. As soon as we hear his first cough, we know he is done for.
Of course, the dying dad montage is trite as hell, from his sudden collapse on the beach (“Dad!” Cyrus yells flatly, in the same way that one might holler for a hot dog at a baseball game) to Ronnie pacing and sliding down the wall at the hospital when she learns of her father’s condition. The whole last act feels tacked on and tasteless; and despite Kinnear’s best efforts to imbue tenderness and pathos into their father-daughter moments, Cyrus’ acting is far too weak to sell it. —Leah Pickett
The Lucky One (2012)
To a point, The Lucky One is one of Sparks’ more subdued affairs. Continuing the aforementioned Iraq War-acknowledging middle period of the Sparks canon, the film follows Logan (Zac Efron), a veteran whose largely untreated PTSD leaves him unable to stay with family when he returns home. Instead he heads to Louisiana to meet Beth (Taylor Schilling), the sister of a former squadmate of Logan’s, whose picture became something of a good luck charm of his after Logan had to see her brother die.
They embark on a torrid romance doomed to be interrupted by two key factors: Logan’s omission of exactly how he came to end up in Beth’s quiet town and Beth’s evil ex-husband/local sheriff’s deputy, who gives bad lieutenants a worse name and needs only a mustache and cackling laugh to ascend to the ranks of definitive villainy. Logan ends up shamed by the abusive deputy until the deputy attempts first to reunite with Beth and then to abduct their child. This sets off a chase scene in a violent thunderstorm, which ends with the deputy dying in a flood so that Logan can subsume his place and have a happy new family built on the self-sacrifice of a man who nearly got both him and his son killed. Yep. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
(A quick note: Since the drowning sequence wasn’t available in time for publication, have this absurdly well-lit final scene, in which we learn who the lucky one really was.)
Safe Haven (2013)
Hooooooo boy. With Safe Haven, any assessment should probably start with an insistence that we swear we’re not making any of this up. It starts out as a pretty boilerplate melodrama about an attractive young white woman named Katie (Julianne Hough) who leaves her abusive relationship for a fresh start in coastal North Carolina. There, she meets Alex (Josh Duhamel), an attractive young white man, and his attractive and even younger white children. There’s also the attractive young white lady next door, Jo (Cobie Smulders), whom Katie befriends shortly after arriving. This will be important later.
Eventually, because Sparks appears to build his premises from the same Mad Libs every single time, Katie’s detective ex hunts her down and follows her to take her back by any means necessary. In the case of Safe Haven, that means soaking the town lighthouse in gasoline and attempting to burn it down with one of the children inside. Katie only saves the kid because Jo comes to her in a dream, waking her up. A scuffle ensues that ends in Katie shooting and killing her ex and Alex saving his daughter just in time. Shortly thereafter, it’s revealed that Jo is actually Alex’s dead ex-wife, appearing to Katie as a ghost to ensure that Alex would find another attractive young white woman someday. I don’t know anymore, man. —Dominick Suzanne-Mayer
The Best of Me (2014)
The last 30 minutes of The Best of Me are insane. To be fair, the first 87 are asinine as well: James Marsden and Michelle Monaghan — who have zero chemistry, by the way — play long-estranged paramours Dawson and Amanda, who are really just recycled, banal avatars of Noah and Allie from The Notebook (Sparks published The Notebook in 1996 and The Best of Me in 2011; clearly, he is running out of ideas). Once reunited, the duo muse about what might have been, flash back to their teenage years and have a torrid weekend affair in the country, following which Amanda returns to her rich husband and leaves the sexy, working-class, man-of-few-words Dawson to lick his wounds (sound familiar?).
So when Dawson is shot and killed in the final act, the reaction swings from “WTF?! Damn it, Sparks, I should have known you would pull this,” to “Eh, I wasn’t feeling the romance anyway.” All of the characters jabbering on about “fate” and “stars” and “destiny” is hammered so hard up until this point that I kind of hoped one or both of them would die to prove that their idea of “destiny” is, in fact, bullshit. But no, Dawson needed to die so that when Amanda’s son got into a car accident at that exact same moment, he could get Dawson’s heart. That’s right: When Amanda’s son needed a heart transplant, he got Dawson’s, so now Amanda has the comfort of knowing that her ex-lover’s heart is beating inside of her son’s chest, always. Roll credits. —Leah Pickett