The politics of longing in the cinema of Nicholas Sparks

Within the wildly successful movies adapted from Sparks' bestselling novels, there's a formula for romantic success.


Anna McKibbin

In a 2016 interview with Time Magazine, author Nicholas Sparks discussed the appeal of his writing, filling out the gaps in his dedicated demographic: “My daughter, she says the same thing as some of my readers: ‘You have ruined men for me forever, because they’re just not romantic like this, Dad.’” It is a strangely tone-deaf boast, burdened by a stunning lack of self-awareness. But that quote is also the key to unlocking Sparks’ literary ambition; tapping into his irrepressible desire to offer readers (and eventually viewers with his onscreen adaptations) an alternative, semi-fantastical idea of love – one as far removed from day-to-day life as a fantasy realm or a sci-fi epic.

In such a pursuit, Nicholas Sparks has curated a bland, if reliable, recipe for romance-writing success, but his origins were thoroughly unexpected. He attended the University of Notre Dame on a track and field scholarship where he studied business finance, before writing his breakthrough novel, The Notebook, in a new-parenthood haze. It is loosely based on his wife’s grandparents’ tumultuous dynamic and was instantly popular with readers, launching a career that would see each subsequent novel cemented on the New York Times bestsellers list. Sparks is one of the only reliably lucrative facets of contemporary literary culture, sustained by his rigorous schedule he broke down in an interview for CliffsNotes: “I write 2,000 words a day, three to four days per week, usually between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 3:30 p.m…At this pace, I finish a novel in four to five months, and the editing process is usually straightforward.”

Such discipline offers a unique angle to approach the author’s clinical results, with each story only separated from its predecessors by paper-thin circumstances, like episodes of a long-running soap opera. And like a soap opera, directors of each filmed adaptation are tasked with maintaining an overlit visual regularity, relying on a set number of tropes and minimising any changes. Fittingly (considering his university major), it is an incredibly business-minded approach to making art, one that seeks to hold onto a core demographic – teenagers and middle-aged women – at the risk of having nothing to say.

Every version of this story is confined to a small, often fictional corner of North Carolina, where a rotating cast of replicable side characters orbit one man and one woman. The mechanics of falling in love then vary based on a few factors: the age of said couple, the era the story is locked in, the inherent tragedy of the couple’s conclusion and (most crucially) the degree to which religion will influence the direction of their love. But what’s truly fascinating is even when these differences alter the facts of the story, the results are often smoothed into a similar frictionless shape.

Ronnie (Miley Cyrus) and Will (Liam Hemsworth) are a young couple on the precipice of college in The Last Song while Katie (Julianne Hough) is on the run from her abusive husband before falling for the widowed Alex (Josh Duhamel) in Safe Haven, but the impact they leave on the viewer is markedly similar, for they are all beautiful people with perfect teeth who stand out against the malaise of small-town folk through harbouring some kind of traumatic past. Will hilariously, inadvertently summarised every Sparks’ dynamic, after his first kiss with the faux edgy, ripped jeans-clad Ronnie: “You’re not like the other girls.”

Love can be a fascinating force to observe through film – it is alive, constantly incorporating the fullness of its subjects, and yet sometimes not flexible enough to expand at the same rate as the people within. It is unbecoming and loud and quietly creeping in at the margins. But through Sparks’ lens, it becomes a singular, transferable event, unifying all his characters across the same event. The inciting event is always a confession prompting a similarly intimate declaration from their significant other.

In The Last Song, when Will admits that his brother died in a car accident, Ronnie responds by demonstrating her skill as a pianist (not really a fair exchange in my opinion). In A Walk to Remember, Jamie (Mandy Moore) describes her bucket list to Landon (Shane West) and he, in turn, explains the complex dynamic he has with his father. Knowledge and understanding bind Sparks couples together in the most obvious way. Each step towards one another is expressed in its crudest form, rendering a transactional exchange of goods through the author’s capitalistic lens.

Couples are proven worthy of such Sparks-ian affection by how they overcome the tragedy which strikes midway through. If they are young, said tragedy is likely to strike at the edge of the story, to a secondary character (as in The Longest Ride, Dear John and The Best of Me), but if they are middle-aged, the tragedy strikes one of our protagonists down with a blunt, ugly force (as in Nights in Rodanthe, Message in a Bottle…and somehow also The Best of Me). Death is manufactured to raise the stakes of an otherwise weightless story while also embodying a brand of unimpeachable loyalty. In this literary world, women are waiting to be saved from single motherhood, abusive marriages or just being good at their jobs. The men who save them are jocks with a gentlemanly demeanour. This appeals to the lowest common denominator of manufactured female desire, reaching for that idealised response: “You have ruined men for me forever.”

Love in this form is a step-by-step routine, an inevitable locking together of two purpose-built puzzle pieces. All of this is reminiscent of the Christian story, which imagines people to be constructed as recipients of God’s love. In this way, Sparks’ love stories are only comprehensible as a belief system, forcing every new relationship to be approached with a quasi-religious intensity, appropriate for a once devout Catholic like Sparks. In discussing the specifics of Will and Ronnie’s love story with Catholic Exchange he combs through the doctrine of their mutual desire: “He sees the way she treats the turtles, and he knows that she doesn’t drink. He sees the good things in her that say, ‘Wow – this is a good person!'” Such specifics in attraction are not innocuous expressions of good manners, but proof of something darker and grotesque – something innately “American”.

There is no room for happy isolation in Sparks’ world; couples are either together, and die with the knowledge that they have found their soulmate, or they are apart unhappily. Ronnie’s innate goodness is only meaningful in as much as it is perceived by Will, with their relationship activating a near 180-degree shift in her personality. In defter storytelling hands this could be a thoughtful dynamic to explore, platforming love as a shape-shifting force, capable of reimagining someone’s whole being, but through Sparks’ lens, it becomes a way of expressing a reductive view of being. All of his characters are halves of a traditional whole – sleeper agents waiting to be activated out of the circumstances of their lives. They are all Eves formed from and for their respective Adams.

None of Sparks’ literary outputs have infiltrated cultural conversations like The Notebook did, and arguably the rest of his work has been chasing that first, indefinable high. But in such a pursuit, he has unwittingly crafted a canon of love stories that will stand as a strange, stunted homage to a generation of women yearning for the kind of man that didn’t (and shouldn’t) exist.

Published 8 Jul 2024

Tags: Nicholas Sparks

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