Why You Can't Stop Watching Nicholas Sparks Movies

Nicholas Sparks books and the movies they spawn are complete and utter fantasies. Not in the Harry Potter sense, but in the this-is-an-entirely-unrealistic-and-implausible- scenario kind of way. Think: an attractive female facing hardship in a waterside southern locale who just needs the love of a good, strong-but-silent, self-made man who's good with his hands to make her whole. No obstacle — be it cancer, domestic violence, military service, creepily having the other person’s photograph/love letters, or even death — is too great for the two lovers to overcome.
Even if they only get one glorious night of relationship consummation together, that’s all they need. Also, everyone’s always sexin’ when it’s raining. The symbolism of it all is oppressive.
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It’s a formula laden with issues, the most central being that Sparks’ works always focus on a white, heterosexual couple. For all it's flaws, however, the formula translates into financial success. To date, Nicholas Sparks movies have grossed over $455 million at the box office. Add on the fact that people like me can’t resist purchasing The Notebook on DVD when it’s in the bargain bin at Target (although it's sat in shrink-wrap for three years now since the movie’s always on TV anyway), and you’ve got yourself a number surging towards $1 billion.
Today marks the release of the latest film based on a Sparks novel, The Best of Me. Everyone’s got romance and James Marsden’s ridiculously chiseled jaw on the brain, so it feels like the perfect time to take stock of the Sparksean canon in all its unbelievable, saccharine, against-all-odds, romantic glory.
Here's why you can't help falling in love with the Sparks formula, time after time. Oh and warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
Message in a Bottle (1999)

Tagline: “A story of love lost and found.”

Her: Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright)

Him: Garret Blake (Kevin Costner)

The place: Outer Banks, North Carolina

The struggle: Chicago Tribune researcher Theresa finds a romantic love letter in a bottle and then several others from a couple whose names are Garret and Catherine. She tracks down Garret, who lives with his father Dodge (Paul Newman) now that his wife Catherine has passed away. Theresa and Garret fall in love with each other, but not only has he never moved past the death of his wife, he also finds the letters in Theresa’s drawer. Uh oh.

The consummation: During a rainy night, of course.

The devastating end: After finding the letters, Garret storms out of Theresa’s life. A year later, Dodge comes to tell her that Garret died while trying to rescue someone at sea during a storm. He left behind one last letter, though, in which he tells Catherine that he’s moved on and found a new love (Theresa).

Believable? The odds of someone who lives in Chicago finding a message in a bottle on Cape Cod and then tracking down its writer/recipient in North Carolina are prettyyyyyyyyyyy small.
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Photo: Courtesy of Warner Bros.
A Walk to Remember, (2002)

Tagline: “It all comes down to who’s by your side.”

Her: Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore)

Him: Landon Carter (Shane West)

The place: Beaufort, North Carolina

The struggle: Rebellious Landon is required to participate in after-school activities as penance for a horrible prank on another student. There, he meets Jamie, the quiet minister's daughter. They fall in love, but Landon finds out that Jamie has terminal leukemia. He sets out to help her complete everything on her bucket list.

The consummation: Landon helps Jamie complete the final item on her list: getting married.

The devastating end: Jamie dies, but leaves behind a hopeful Landon, who she’s changed forever.

Believable? When the book and movie first came out, it felt pretty implausible that two high schoolers would be allowed to get married. Now that we live in a post-Upworthy age, though, it feels like these types of stories actually do make headlines every so often. Go figure.
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Photo: Courtesy of New Line Cinema
The Notebook (2004)

Tagline: “Behind every great love is a great love story.”

Her: Allie Hamilton Calhoun (Rachel McAdams/Gena Rowlands)

Him: Noah Calhoun/Duke (Ryan Gosling/James Garner)

The place: Seabrook Island, North Carolina

The struggle: He’s a poor boy; she’s a rich girl. After a torrid summer romance, Allie’s parents forbid her from seeing him, and she goes off to college while he fights in World War II. She gets engaged to a wealthy suitor her parents consider appropriate (hello again, James Marsden), but a newspaper article about Noah restoring the dilapidated house in which they first made love sends her back into his arms.

The consummation: You know it, so say it with me. (Imagine it’s pouring.) “Why didn’t you write me? Why? It wasn’t over for me! I waited for you for seven years, and now it’s too late.” “I wrote you 365 letters. I wrote you every day for a year.” “You wrote me?” “Yes! It wasn’t over...it still isn’t over.”

The devastating end: We realize that the elderly Duke, who’s been reading Allie and Noah’s love story to a woman with Alzheimer’s in a nursing home, is actually Noah; the woman is Allie. They did get married and have children and grandchildren. In one of Allie’s decreasing moments of lucidity, she asks if their love can take them away together. He says yes, and they die in each other’s arms.

Believable? The whole “mystery” surrounding the elderly Duke’s true identity is too much of an outward-facing, fourth-wall-breaking contrivance to make The Notebook feel like anything besides a fictional and fantastical love story. Also, kissing in the rain? Not that great.
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Photo: Courtesy of Village Roadshow Pictures.
Nights in Rodanthe (2008)

Tagline: “It’s never too late for a second chance.”

Her: Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane)

Him: Dr. Paul Flanner (Richard Gere)

The place: Rodanthe, North Carolina

The struggle: Adrienne’s estranged husband wants to patch up their relationship, and her teenage daughter is spiraling out of control. She seeks refuge in a weekend of solace at her friend’s inn on the beach in Rodanthe. There, she meets Dr. Flanner, who’s also doing some soul-searching and tranquility-seeking after a botched operation. They fall in love during a storm-filled weekend, and the brief affair is powerful enough to encourage Paul to reunite with his son (James Franco), who went to South America for Doctors Without Borders.

The consummation: A falling armoire literally sends them into each other’s arms during (what else) a torrential thunder storm. Love is made.

The devastating end: Paul doesn’t appear when he and Adrienne are finally supposed to reunite, leaving his son to confirm her worst fears. Paul has been killed in a mudslide in South America. Still, the story of their brief, magical love affair is enough to mend Adrienne’s relationship with her daughter and give her the strength she needs to continue with her life.

Believable? The inn in Rodanthe is on the beach — as in, no one would build a structure so massive in that location because of sand, tides, erosion, and all that scientific jazz. Beyond the literal structural issues, the movie is just too sad-woman-needs-the-love-of-a-good-man-to-continue-on trope-oriented. This accomplished doctor basically exists to come into Adrienne’s life for one magical weekend and then die so she can come to terms with her own situation. It’s surprising that Paul is even given a backstory at all; the way in which he was just described makes him sound like Jesus.
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Dear John (2010)

Tagline: “What would you do with a letter that changed everything?”

Her: Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried)

Him: John Tyree (Channing Tatum)

The place: Charleston, South Carolina

The struggle: John and Savannah have a meet-cute when he rescues her purse from the water. He’s on leave from the Army; she’s on spring break. They fall in love over the course of the next two weeks, but John has to return to his unit, and Savannah goes back to college. They continue to write love letters to one another, promising to be together after John is finished serving, but he re-enlists after September 11. Savannah sends him a “Dear John” letter, saying she’s engaged to someone else.

The consummation: In the foundation of a house under the full moon. Earlier, John and Savannah passionately kissed in the same location while it was (wait for it) pouring rain.

The devastating end: John returns home after he learns that his father is dying. He goes to visit Savannah, who has actually married Tim, her neighbor who has lymphoma. Tim tells John that Savannah still loves him, and he sells his father’s precious coin collection to help pay for Tim’s treatments. After Tim dies and John has returned to civilian life, he sees Savannah in a coffee shop, and the film ends with them hugging each other warmly like old friends.

Believable? This one just has too many movie-of-the-week issues jammed in. There’s Tim’s autistic son, who causes John to realize that his own father might be autistic. There’s September 11 and John choosing to re-enlist, which means he “chooses” the military and his loyalty to his country over Savannah. Then there’s Tim dying of lymphoma, which means Savannah has to put her dream of opening a riding camp for autistic kids on hold. It’s just too much.

This is also a good place to discuss the role the military plays in many of Sparks’ works. It’s a way for male characters to show how loyal and self-sacrificing they are while remaining “pure” and “faithful” to their one true loves. Sparks doesn't want the audience to think of the two central lovers as having sexual desires for anyone besides each other. Even then, it's a chaste sort of love — remember how it almost always takes place in the cleansing rain? In Sparks’ eyes, it’s easier to eclipse the possibility of the male having other sexual encounters and desires by having him on active military duty in a dangerous location. How, um, romantic.
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Photo: Courtesy of Touchstone Pictures.
The Last Song (2010)

Tagline: "A story about family, first loves, second chances, and the moments in life that lead you back home."

Her: Veronica “Ronnie” Miller (Miley Cyrus)

Him: Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth)

The place: Tybee Island, Georgia

The struggle: Piano prodigy Ronnie has been rebelling since her parents’ divorce, quitting the piano and giving up her dream of attending Juilliard. She’s even more upset when her mother sends her and her younger brother, Jonah, to stay with their reclusive father for the summer. There, she meets rich boy Will and, despite her initial scorn, falls for him when she realizes he’s not the playboy she’s been led to believe.

The consummation: So much romping in the waves. So much.

The devastating end: Ronnie soon learns the real reason she’s been sent to reunite with her father: He’s dying of cancer. Instead of going to school in the fall, she stays behind to take care of her dad and finish his final piano composition.

Believable? Well, there’s the whole third-act cancer storyline that again follows The Notebook style of keeping something from the audience (and therefore the characters) for the sake of dramatic escalation. After Ronnie’s father dies, she clears his name of the supposed church-burning crime he committed — an extraneous plotline if there ever was one. Then, all the loose ends are tied up when Will returns to say that he’s transferring from Vanderbilt to Columbia so he and Ronnie can be together while she attends Juilliard. It’s so great when young love wraps up in such a nicely tied bow.
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Photo: Courtesy of Village Roadshow Pictures.
The Lucky One (2012)

Tagline: “From the acclaimed, bestselling author of Dear John and The Notebook.” (They kind of gave up on this one, no?)

Her: Beth Green (Taylor Schilling)

Him: Logan Thibault (Zac Efron)

The place: Louisiana

The struggle: U.S. Marine Logan sees a photo of a woman glinting in the sun during an ambush and goes to retrieve it. An explosion occurs in the very spot he just vacated, leading his squadmate to deem the woman in the photo his guardian angel. After Logan returns home, he decides to find the woman in the photo. He tracks her down in Louisiana and takes a job working for, developing a bond with her shy son. Logan and Beth fall in love.

The consummation: In an outdoor shower and sun-drenched barn. It’s a scene basically made for YouTube comments like “the way he bites her lip LOL.”

The devastating end: Beth’s abusive ex-husband tells her that Logan has been stalking her, using the photo as evidence. She’s angry that Logan didn’t tell her about the photo, or that he was there when her brother (who had the picture originally) was killed.

Believable? Beth's ex-husband keeps threatening to take their son away from her, meaning that he has to be eliminated so that Beth and Logan can be together and form a happy familial unit. The abusive ex dies, but also gets redeemed in the process when he chooses Logan’s life over his own during a rainstorm that also puts the son in danger. All of that aside, even if a soldier does miraculously get saved by a freak coincidence involving the retrieval of a beautiful woman's photo, what are the odds he’ll be able to find her and they’ll fall in love?
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Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media.
Safe Haven (2013)

Tagline: “You know it when you find it.”

Her: Katie/Erin (Julianne Hough)

Him: Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel)

The place: Southport, North Carolina

The struggle: We first see Katie leaving her house with a bloody knife. She then buys a bus ticket and arrives in a small town in North Carolina. There, she meets and falls in love with the manager of a small convenience store, a widower named Alex who has two young children.

The consummation: In the quaint and rustic house Katie’s been renting.

The devastating end: The police show up looking for Katie, saying she’s wanted for murder. She stabbed her husband in self-defense, though, because he was trying to drunkenly assault her. The husband survived the stabbing, and he tracks her down and tries to shoot her and burn down Alex’s store. Alex saves Katie and gives her a letter from his dead wife, which says that if she receiving the letter, it means that Alex loves her.

Believable? Well, after Alex gives Katie the letter from his dead wife, it’s revealed that she’s also Jo, the next-door neighbor Katie befriended, who left town after the whole scuffle with Katie’s husband went down. Jo was actually the ghost of Alex’s wife. Yup, an actual ghost.
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Photo: Courtesy of Relativity Media.
The Best of Me (2014)

Tagline: “You never forget your first love.”

Her: Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan)

Him: Dawson Cole (James Marsden)

The place: Oriental, North Carolina

The struggle: He comes from a notorious family of thugs; she’s the beautiful daughter of wealthy parents. They fall in love when they’re paired up as lab partners in biology class. After his truck spins out of control and kills the town doctor; however, Dawson is sent to prison for four years, after which he pursues a life working on various oil rigs. Amanda marries her college sweetheart, but returns to Oriental occasionally to visit Tuck, the man who became Dawson’s surrogate father after he ran away from his violent family. She’s unhappy in her marriage to an alcoholic man, and Dawson has been hiding from his past and his family.

The consummation: There’s the first time they make love as teenagers, and the one beautiful night Dawson and Amanda spend together when carrying out Tuck’s final wishes brings them back together.

The devastating end: Dawson’s cousin, Crazy Ted, finds out that he’s back in town and relentlessly pursues him. During the way-too-many-things-happening climax, Dawson saves the son of the doctor he accidentally killed from being attacked by his cousins. Crazy Ted then murders Dawson. Simultaneously, Amanda’s son is in an accident and needs a heart transplant. He is able to survive after receiving Dawson’s heart.

Believable? This one feels a little too carefully planned to appeal to both younger and older audiences, what with portraying Dawson and Amanda falling in love in high school and then rekindling said love over two decades later. Plus, the idea of Dawson remaining absolutely faithful to his one true love (i.e. not having sex with or pursuing a relationship with anyone since they broke up as teenagers) is supposed to be romantic, but it actually feels slightly stalker-y and uncomfortable. Call us cynical, but Amanda moved on, and so should you, Dawson.
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