I vividly remember the first time I saw The Notebook, in 2004. I was 14 and on summer vacation with my dad and stepmom in Naples, FL. We went to the tiny local theater on a muggy August afternoon and got ice cream after. I went back by myself two days later, armed with a pack of watermelon-flavoured Bubblicious gum —and a seemingly endless supply of tears.
Directed by Nick Cassavetes, from a script by Jeremy Leven and Jan Sardi, it’s a movie that is non-dissociable from my early teen years. “If you’re a bird, I’m a bird” is forever tied to my own budding sexual awakening, no matter how cheesy that line seems today. Ryan Gosling’s gentle swooping hair, and his metamorphosis into a broody, bearded man after Allie’s (Rachel McAdams) perceived betrayal, are seared into my soul as markers of desired manhood.That’s why the recent accusations levelled at Nicholas Sparks, who wrote the novel the movie is based on (along with many others, including A Walk To Remember, Dear John, and The Last Song), are so painful.
As The Daily Beast recently reported, the author has been accused of banning an LGBTQ+ club at the prep school he co-founded in North Carolina. The evidence — a series of emails between Sparks and the school’s headmaster, Saul Benjamin — seems pretty damning, as is the timing: June is Pride Month, and also the 15th anniversary of The Notebook, which first hit theaters on June 25, 2004. (Sparks has since expressed regret for his actions, and apologized to the LGBTQ+ community, a statement that, given the evidence, feels like too little too late.)
As we’ve learned many times over the last few years (see: Woody Allen, Michael Jackson, Bill Cosby — the list goes on), coming to terms with the fact that the person and ideas behind a beloved pop culture phenomenon are problematic is a difficult process. And though you could make a case for dissociating the movie from the novel it’s based on, the fact that the entire story is based on Sparks’ own grandparents makes that rather difficult. But perhaps this is a good opportunity to really delve beyond the nostalgic veneer of The Notebook. Why did this movie resonate? And does that magic really hold up today?
The answer to the first question begins and ends with the cast. Before landing the part of Noah, Gosling was known mostly for his turn in The Believer, in which he played a young Jewish man who embraces white supremacy. (He was also an alum of The All New Mickey Mouse Club in the mid-90s alongside Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake.) McAdams beat out the far more famous Reese Witherspoon and Jessica Biel for the part. Just two months before The Notebook hit theaters, she won critical praise for terrorizing North Shore High School as Regina George in Mean Girls.
Their individual performances are thoughtful and dynamic. As Allie, McAdams crackles with the energy of a young woman who refuses to be contained by the expectations and mores of her social class, while Gosling gives quiet gravitas to a solemn but charming young man who’s content with his life. (Those sad, soulful eyes!) Together, they threaten to incinerate the screen.
Also essential to the mix is James Marsden, who, as Allie’s fiance Lon Hammond, makes a convincing case for her to stay with him rather than drop everything for a one-time summer love. His performance gives credible tension to a love triangle that otherwise might have seemed superfluous, even if it’s a subtlety that was lost on my adolescent self, too consumed with Ryan Gosling to notice anything else. Less compelling are the older versions of Allie and Noah played by Gena Rowlands (Cassavetes’ mother) and James Garner, whose presence adds more schmaltz than any narrative framing device ought to. Did I cry at the big end reveal that they are in fact one and the same with Allie and Noah? Yes, profusely. Does that make it a good twist? Absolutely not.
All of this was pointed out by critics at the time, who gave the film mostly middling reviews. But The Notebook is tailor-made for the emotional swells of early teenagehood. It’s a guileless, somewhat naive look at the power of first love. Noah and Allie meet during a hot South Carolina summer, right before America’s entry into World War II. Their courtship is fraught with passion and real tenderness, fights and make-ups, and the shivers of a first sexual desire. But they also don’t consummate that lust, which makes their later encounter all that more potent. We, like them, have been yearning for it. What’s more, Sparks tends to punctuate his story with major obstacles that keep his lovers apart: war, illness, a devious mother hiding letters. It’s the drama of romance novels — even if the author famously (and somewhat bafflingly) refuses to count his books as part of that much-maligned genre.
For those very reasons, those of us who came of age watching The Notebook have a strong emotional attachment to it. But revisiting the film now, that powerful feeling is diluted not just by Sparks’ recent scandal but by the kind of overanalysis and dissection that comes with adulthood.
Suddenly, Noah’s relentless pursuit of Allie, first on the Ferris wheel, and then, in the middle of the street, doesn’t seem so charming. It smacks of a kind of entitled and outdated toxic masculinity that teaches young men not to take no for an answer — after all, it’s romantic to be chased! Look how well it turned out for them! Likewise, the film’s near-erasure of people of colour, despite its Deep South setting, is troubling, especially because it’s consistent with a pattern that courses through Sparks’ entire literary oeuvre, as well as the many films based on his books. Too many of his stories are paternalistic, moralistic paeans to white heteronormativity. What do we really know about Allie as a person, aside from her attraction to Noah, desire to attend Sarah Lawrence, and the fact that she loves to paint? She’s spunky, sure, but only within the acceptable boundaries of white, upper middle class womahood. It’s lucky, really, that McAdams’ strong performance inflates an otherwise flat character.
Part of The Notebook’s enduring appeal is the mythology associated with it. McAdams and Gosling reportedly hated each other on set, and clashed constantly. And while that detail alone showcases their acting skills and the magic of movies, it also makes their subsequent real-life relationship even more legendary. This is the film that led to that iconic onstage kiss at the 2005 MTV Movie Awards. McAdams adjusting her bustier! Gosling motioning her over! The leap! It’s more thrilling than anything The Notebook could fake, but the two are also intrinsically linked in our pop cultural memories. (The same can be said of Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, who met on the set of 2010’s The Last Song, also based on a Sparks novel.)
The Notebook is one of those movies that’s actually much more fun to reminisce and think about than it is to actually watch at this point. That’s why the news that the film is being adapted into a musical starring Vanessa Hudgens (who has been called out for her silence regarding Sparks’ behaviour) is so baffling. As Anne T. Donahue recently pointed out in a piece pegged to the film’s anniversary, modern audiences deserve better, more diverse and inclusive stories than Sparks and his ilk have given us over the years. The recent allegations against the author throws the film’s flaws in even sharper relief.
And so, 15 years after I first saw it, perhaps it’s time to leave the The Notebook in the part of my brain that’s still transported by the flawed fantasy, rather than lose the feeling it first evoked with too many disappointing repeat viewings. That way, it never has to be over.
Correction: This story originally stated that the Epiphany School was in California. It's actually in North Carolina.