Which Nicholas Sparks Films Are Worth Watching?

  • Message in a Bottle

    [Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]
  • A Walk to Remember

    [Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]
  • The Notebook

    [Photo Credit: New Line Cinema]
  • Nights in Rodanthe

    [Photo Credit: Warner Bros.]
  • Dear John

    [Photo Credit: Screen Gems]
  • The Last Song

    [Photo Credit: Walt Disney Studios]
  • The Lucky One

    [Photo Credit: Village Roadshow]
  • Safe Haven

    [Photo Credit: Relativity Media]

Nicholas Sparks has created an empire from the hopeful yet tragic loves stories you read on vacation or watch after too many bottles of wine. Like Nancy Meyers, whose films always incorporate droolworthy decor, location is key. And Sparks’ films are almost exclusively set on the coasts of North or South Carolina–a nod to his adopted home of New Bern, NC. Over the years numerous titles have been adapted from breezy beach reads into sugar-coated love stories with a male and female lead much too beautiful to be of this Earth.

Some stand out: The Notebook has become required viewing for any female and/or person with a beating heart, while Miley Cyrus’ transformation from Disney girl to Twerk Queen included a pit stop in a role Sparks created just for her. But do all Nicholas Sparks novels-turned-blockbusters include letter-writing or a devastating illness in the final act? Pretty much. Does the male lead sensually grab his female counterpart’s face on every promotional poster? Yes! (See above.)

With Valentine’s Day approaching, it seemed as good a time as ever to explore the Sparks canon in full. How else will I know if the news that James Marsden will play the lead in The Best of Me is a career downgrade or a move deserving of a little more defending? And don’t you want to be able to explain to your basic friends that The Vow is not a Nicholas Sparks joint. Call me a masochist, but my mission was clear.

The Mission: Watch all eight films adapted from Nicholas Sparks novels in the week leading up to Valentine’s Day, without drowning in my own pile of tears and/or self-pity.

The Movies:

Message in a Bottle (1999)
A Walk to Remember (2002)
The Notebook (2004)
Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
Dear John (2010)
The Last Song (2010)
The Lucky One (2012)
Safe Haven (2013)

A ranking from worst to first and spoilers about films that have already been theatrically released to come, but first…

8. The Lucky One

In a nutshell: a Marine (Zac Efron) survives his third tour in Iraq thanks to his overwhelming curiosity. When a mysterious photo of a woman he’s never met ultimately save Logan’s life, he becomes obsessed with finding her. So obsessed, he walks from his family home in Colorado to Louisiana (already with the Grand Romantic Gestures) going off a few pieces of intel about the woman in question. Surprise! States outside of the Carolinas do exist. Once there he cozies up to Beth (Taylor Schilling) who happens to be the sister of one of Logan’s fallen comrades. Since she owns a kennel, shenanigans with furballs ensue, and because he’s a Hunky Cool Dude, her reserved son takes a liking to him. Of course this causes problems with her jealous ex-husband, a burly cop looking to become mayor, who runs through a series of attempts at ruining their budding relationship. After Logan has removed himself from the family, a storm comes through which causes both men to fight to save the little boy with Zefron emerging victorious. Yes, I have PTSD and yes I was dishonest about my identity but now we can live in peace since that old tree fell your ex-husband! The American Dream. Efron and Schilling make an odd pair, and watching this movie in full actually makes you thankful for Piper on Orange Is The New Black.

7. Nights in Rodanthe

Sparks for the older crowd. Adrienne (Diane Lane) covers for (sassy) friend (Viola Davis) at her majestic inn in the Outer Banks during a hurricane weekend. Paul (Richard Gere) is an accomplished surgeon looking to right a recent wrong, while also escaping pent-up frustration from a failed marriage and an estranged son. People do grow close when there’s no one else around, or during extreme weather conditions. And with alcohol. Bet you didn’t expect single mom Diane Lane to start ripping whiskey shots! Their relationship intensifies quickly, without too much explanation save for the fact that they’re both there and both newly single. When Dr. Paul leaves to meet his son (James Franco) in a remote South American locale, they agree to write letters to get to know each other better. Come on, Nicky! We’ve been down this road before. Just as Adrienne executed a more successful version of Cher Horowitz’s date night plan, Franco appears at the door with silent news that Paul is Dead. That’s right, folks. Don’t write letters to anyone you don’t want to perish in a mudslide or marry their next door neighbor. Texting 4 life.

6. The Last Song

Are you ready to experience the moment Miley and Liam Hemsworth fell in love? Talented yet misunderstood Ronnie gets shipped off to her father’s beachside home after giving her mom one too many headaches in New York. She’s not about this shirtless volleyball life, though–can’t you see she wears black?–and instead becomes fixated on the sea turtle eggs in her front yard rather than actual human contact. Luckily studly Will (Hemsworth) volunteers at the local aquarium and likes girls who verbally berate him and make assumptions about his family’s wealth. The fast-moving summer romance includes one mud fight, one awkward family dinner and a Huge Misunderstanding where Ronnie is too proud to see the other side. Greg Kinnear does as much as he can as Ronnie’s sick father, but his sub-plot about being wrongly accused of burning down a local church is snoozy at best. Liam has his charms, and a surprisingly passable American accent, but Miley’s constant look of disapproval is difficult to shake. Smile! Enunciate! Brush your hair! Be thankful Bangerz came when it did.

5. Safe Haven

Naturally I was excited to find that Netflix is currently streaming the most recent Sparks flick, featuring the greatest romantic couple of our time: Josh Duhamel and Julianne Hough. Ryan Seacrest’s ex has done a few movies since becoming your grandmother’s favorite celebrity on Dancing With the Stars (see: Footloose and Rock of Ages) but my expectations for her dramatic prowess were ankle-high at best. We open with a frantic brunette covered in blood banging on her neighbor’s window. Whoa: Julienned peppers gone horribly wrong, or did she just murder someone? Soon enough, Julianne is blonde and boarding a bus with her hood up while an agent-type scours the station looking for her. Amazingly, she escapes his pursuit and gets off hours later in the little beachside town most people simply pass through. Well most guys who sell me coffee don’t look like Josh Duhamel, and if you’re looking to start over why not do it while getting a tan? As soon as “Katie” (Hough) gets settled with a job, a home and meets her creepy “neighbor,” Jo (HIMYM’s Cobie Smulders) she starts bonding with Sexy Store Owner after an extended joke about paint. Katie becomes a part of the family, just as the deranged, alcoholic agent–also known as her abusive husband–stumbles into town on Independence Day. Yes, this is a town most people only stop in for bathrooms and gas, but it draws over 100,000 for its impressive fireworks display. An ugly, physical altercation ensues leaving Katie’s husband six feet under. Do you know who else is six feet under? Jo, who’s actually the ghost of Alex’s dead wife, who followed Katie to make sure she was the right woman for her family. So we’ve already met the mother? Cool.

4. Message in a Bottle

Sleepless in Seattle, Outer Banks Style. Theresa (Robin Wright) is a researcher for the Chicago Tribune who comes across a–yes–message in a bottle while on vacation in Cape Cod. Being human, the contents intrigue her and she soon finds herself enamored with the words of a lovelorn man writing to his Catherine. The story makes it way to the front page and she travels to North Carolina in hope of finding him. Annie Reed, anyone? Of course they meet, of course they fall in love and of course she doesn’t tell him she’s been publicizing his heartbroken prose for all to see. Turns out Garret (Kevin Costner) hasn’t forgiven himself for not being able to save his wife from death years before. He attempts to make peace with this when he realizes he loves Theresa, but dies during a storm off the coast. This leaves Theresa to grieve on the beach with his last words and later resign herself to Midwestern life in the comfort only a slightly bigger office. The first of the Sparks film adaptations has the advantage of not feeling like it came from an Emotion Generator, and features G.O.A.T Paul Newman as Garret’s wily father.

3. Dear John

Why was I indifferent to Channing Tatum for so long? The premise is simple: local soldier (Tatum) meets local rich girl (Amanda Seyfried) while she’s home on Spring Break; they fall in love two weeks before he has to ship out and promise to write each other until they’re reunited a year later. Through mail delivery montages and sappy voiceovers things intensify, and then 9/11 happens and it all everything falls apart. Does John have a duty to his country or his girlfriend? A woman who hasn’t exactly being hurting in her family’s lavish homes or picturesque college campus. Watching the first half of the movie made me realize how easily Tatum pulls off effortless cool and how unfortunate some of the casting for Friday Night LightsScott Porter has been. Why can’t Jason Street get a good role, world? You’d think the preppy co-ed vying for Savannah’s attention was going to give John problems, but instead it’s the awkward male divorcee who lives next door and has been creeping on his barely legal babysitter for years. In retrospect the big marriage twist is fairly obvious, considering the film spent so much time establishing a non-blood relative of Savannah’s and his interest in her love life. I thought he was going to be a murderer, or potentially come on to Savannah and give John another excuse to flex his muscles and/or remove his shirt (hopefully the latter!). Instead we get an extended mail montage followed by Seyfried’s guilty voice apologizing for “not telling [him] sooner.” Cut to six years later when John has lost his father and purpose in life only to find out that the girl he loved married her older neighbor because he was diagnosed with cancer and needed someone to care for his Autistic son. But that plus mounting medical bills won’t stop this doe-eyed from insinuating she’d be down to cheat on her dying husband, if John is. Amanda Seyfried you are a manipulative hussy and are not worthy of John’s love! And you probably shouldn’t have been cast as Cosette in Les Miserables either, but I’ll save that rant for another holiday. Frustrating plot developments aside, Tatum and Seyfried’s are far from cheesy, even if they’re basically recreating the rainy kiss scene in The Notebook. And as far as Sparks men go, Tatum is right up there alongside Ryan Gosling.

A Walk to Remember

The well of teen lovers from different worlds has been tapped, dating all the back to Romeo and Juliet. Sparks isn’t reinventing anything by pairing bad boy Landon (Shane West) up with bookish Jamie (Mandy Moore), and the social repercussions he’ll ultimately feel inside his school cafeteria can be seen from miles away. But there’s something about how once he realizes she’s someone he cares about (the moment she sings “Only Hope,” perhaps?) and subsequently does everything in his power to help complete her bucket list before it’s too late, that makes you wish he was a bigger star. Don’t pretend like you don’t want to try the “standing in two places at once” thing on your next road trip, and don’t pretend like you had the same Corinthians passage as your high school yearbook quote (without realizing it was from the Bible). If you want an more serious and better acted version of this–minus cancer–check out last summer’s The Spectacular Now.

1. The Notebook

For starters, Noah (Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams) chemistry is infectious, thanks in part to the actors being on the road to relationship during the time of filming. As a summer fling between two people from different sides of the world, their story is nothing new for a Sparks film. But with a love story so epic, it’s easy to let that slide. McAdams looks like a bona fide pinup in her 1940s attire and Gosling gets to be clean-shaven and bearded thanks to story’s passing of time. Looks aside, his natural ability to charm just about anyone is one of the reasons he’s one of the biggest stars in Hollywood 10 years later. There’s familial betrayal, loss and war and one of the most re-watched make-out scenes in the last 20 years. The Notebook was Sparks’ first major novel, which arguably contributes to the success of its adaptation. Maybe all of your stories aren’t going to satisfy my every emotional need, but if you can make my cold heart believe there’s a man who loves his dying wife enough to recount their personal history to her every single day, I’m sold. Basically if you’re a bird, I’m a bird, Nicholas.

[Photo Credit: New Line Cinema]