Easy to dismiss but increasingly difficult to ignore, Nicholas Sparks products have become the standard for modern American romance. With this week's release of The Last Song, six of Sparks' 15 novels have been adapted to film within the past 11 years, and two are in the pipeline. As character-oriented dramas fall out of favor in Hollywood, Sparks' old-fashioned love stories are popular, profitable exceptions. They consult a playbook as dependable as any blockbuster franchise, but they exploit a very different kind of fantasy.
Carolina on My Mind. All Sparks movies, regardless of aesthetic strategy or director sensibility, employ shots that are motion-picture versions of placid book-jacket art: beaches at sunset, boats tied to docks, lighthouses, cradled coffee mugs and turtleneck sweaters. Like talking animals in beer commercials, that shit just plays. Sparks sets most of his books in coastal North Carolina, but the films branch into neighboring states — South Carolina in Dear John, Georgia in The Last Song — as production incentives and tax breaks dictate. These contemplative shores hint at philosophical inquiry but are really just scenic shorthand, quick transition shots of vacant calm.
Keeping the Faith. Sometimes God is central, other times peripheral, but He's never absent. Christian belief and churchgoing are givens. Yet this isn't the thumping Christianity of youth retreats and Bible studies. It's an implicit, genteel faith, an old-time religion passed from generation to generation, which inspires not fanaticism but good deeds: building houses for the homeless (Dear John), saving a family from drowning (Message in a Bottle) or volunteering free medical care (Nights in Rodanthe).
Life Is Good. Despite their melodramatic elements, Sparks movies are almost completely devoid of classic drama. Conflicts between individuals — or between individuals and society — are nominal and easily resolved. Sparks plots are instead dependent upon circumstance. Characters grapple with external forces (nor'easters, cancers, 9/11), not inner demons or desires (Douglas Sirk would be appalled), and they are remarkably accepting of the cruelties of fate. Bad behavior is rare, and even when it occurs, there's a very good reason for it (divorced parents, dying parents). Shane West's a-hole antics at the outset of A Walk to Remember are quickly explained and forgiven, and by film's end, he's building a telescope out of cardboard for his terminally ill girlfriend. Regardless of life or death, marriage or divorce, Sparks folk are always reconciled in the end.
Life Is Short. While it's immediately apparent which characters will fall in love in a Sparks film, predicting which will die is marginally tougher. But make no mistake — die someone will. It's a truism that speaks of a morbid impulse disguised as transcendence. Sparks deaths are sanctifying and resolving. They shepherd girls into womanhood (The Last Song) and legitimate illicit desires (Dear John).
My Baby She Wrote Me a Letter. Sparks' obsession with old-fashioned letter-writing — central to Dear John and The Notebook but featured in every film — speaks of a Luddite nostalgia for a simpler, pre–e-mail era, and connects his popular fiction with the epistolary women's novels of the 18th century. But he's also marshaling a potent pornography of separation.
Daddy's Girls. Perfectly calibrated for widespread relatability, Sparks heroines are appealing but not overtly sexy (Mandy Moore, not Scarlett Johansson; Rachel McAdams, not Angelina Jolie), nor are they high-powered professionals. They are modest women with secret creative talents. They paint (on old-fashioned easels), craft (out of wood), sing (in church) and write songs (for Daddy). But their talents are always secondary to helping others, and all answer to the nurturing imperative. Even a rebellious teen like Miley Cyrus in The Last Song can't help but mother imperiled sea turtles. And though they go weak for shirtless young men, they share a greater chemistry with nonthreatening father figures (played by Paul Newman, Sam Shepard, Peter Coyote, Richard Jenkins and Greg Kinnear).
All the Man That I Need. By comparison, Sparks boys get lost in ambitious missions. They perform surgeries (Richard Gere in Nights in Rodanthe), fight wars (Channing Tatum in Dear John), sail the high seas (Kevin Costner in Message in a Bottle), renovate houses (Ryan Gosling in The Notebook). Yet they still manage to care for sick fathers-in-law, write tearjerking letters and remain doggedly loyal. Their worst, and often only, flaw is that they are too free with their fists. But rest assured that their punches are always righteous.
Love Is Patient, Love Is Kind. Sex is okay in tender, teary, merlot-catalyzed missionary couplings at dawn (The Notebook is a glaring exception here, with its wild, popped-cork, monkey-cradled fucking), but wholesome romance always prevails. These are stories for good girls — or girls who aspire to be good. They are guiltless pleasures. Which is about as American as dreams get.
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A MILEY CYRUS SQUIRM-ALONG
Hannah Montana gets upstaged by sea turtles in The Last Song
The script, costumes and props of The Last Song work hard to establish Miley Cyrus' dramatic-role bona fides as the 17-year-old crosses over from G to PG: Her character, constantly sneering high school grad Ronnie Miller, sports a tiny nose stud, stomps on the beach in Doc Martens, believes meat is murder, calls someone a "bitch," reads Anna Karenina and hurts her dad's feelings. But Cyrus' co-stars must work harder to enter the nearly impenetrable force field surrounding the Disney cash calf. The first screenplay of novelist Nicholas Sparks, co-writing with college pal Jeff Van Wie, denies us the one reliable pleasure of his previous page-to-screen adaptations: watching actors of varying talents evince real emotion and passion from the syrupy source material. In lieu of believable human connection, Cyrus, sharing the screen with both a romantic interest, Will (Liam Hemsworth), and a fragile father (Greg Kinnear), bonds most deeply with sea-turtle eggs. I can't recall ever squirming as much as I did during Ronnie and Will's first kiss; shiny, buff Hemsworth looks like he's locking lips with an Andy Hardy–era Mickey Rooney in a wig. But the real discomfort comes from watching Kinnear being forced to say, "You are the kindest, sweetest, most beautiful daughter in the whole world" — most likely at Billy Ray's insistence. (Citywide) (Melissa Anderson)