Over the past couple of weeks I was on a reading and viewing spree, marathoning series after series, movie after movie, book after book. It was an exhausting but enlightening experience. It was only until a few days ago when I realized I have finished reading and watching all Nicholas Sparks film adaptations. I was originally planning to do a summary and snap judgment of Stephen King film adaptations but that turned out to be an enormous task and I haven’t finished reading all the books as well as watched the movies. In the end, Nicholas Sparks books and films were more accessible and definitely easier to finish. This isn’t going to be a comprehensive review of all the 6 films but rather ‘snap judgments’, a quick review with reference to the source material.
With Nicholas Sparks novels, there’s always a recurring theme. It can be a dysfunctional family, a tragic past, a heartbreaking ending, and death. It’s hard to miss any of these in his novels and every new novel he creates seems like recycled material. This doesn’t make Sparks less of an author in fact his unique style enables him to recycle these themes over and over again and make it seem fresh and new. Unfortunately though, the same cannot be said for his films all of which seem so familiar. Let’s break it down.
Message in a Bottle (1999)– This is the first Sparks film adaptation and for a first try, it was well… bad. First, the stars Kevin Costner and Robin Wright simply had no chemistry. Their screen presence was flat. Second, the screenplay adaptation was a failure. The book was a fascinating and emotional read because of the letters. It was a prominent element in the books and this was stripped bare in the movie, never explored fully. The last chapter in the book was heartbreaking, revealing the final letter which consumed an entire chapter. In the film, this final letter was well… revealed to be a single line. What a disappointment! It was the true highlight in the book and they took it out in the film. Third, the pacing was inconsistent. The director tried to be so dramatic he ended up with a deliberately paced and long film that wasn’t entertaining at all. Despite that, the film managed to recoup their production expenses in the box office and this paved the way for more Sparks films. That perhaps is their real achievement. Had this film bombed in the box office, we would have no more Sparks film adaptations. But does Sparks deserve to have his films adapted so poorly? The next five films will have to do better.
A Walk to Remember (2002)– This was a smaller film than Sparks first with a significantly lower budget than Message in a Bottle and a lesser box office gross (but still a modest figure considering the low budget). In fact, this is Sparks cheapest film to date. I remember this film to be a huge hit among the teens for which this film’s marketing targeted. After all, this starred pop star Mandy Moore and Shane West. Moreover, this had a brilliant soundtrack which I enjoyed listening to at that time (Switchfoot was then a relatively unknown band catering to a select Christian rock fanbase). Unfortunately though, this film was no better than Sparks first film. This was adapted poorly, removing several significant elements from the novel which would have worked effectively in the film. The screenplay also tried so hard to be emotional and sappy there seems to be a disconnect between characters and audience. The film was also notable as the most preachy of Sparks films. Because of that this turned out to be a favorite among the conservative families out there with parents watching this film over and over again with their teenage daughters. Well that was the statistic recovered from this film when this was aired on US National TV. Moore and West, though not in their best managed to portray their characters somewhat convincingly while some of the elements in this film worked with a few genuinely moving scenes. The film can be described as 1/4 good, 3/4 bad. What this film managed to do good though was prove that Sparks could also create stories geared for younger audiences and this played well in the films that followed. In the end, the novel was essentially a walk to remember while this film was a walk to forget. A missed opportunity for a book that proved to be very emotional and had me shedding a single manly tear.
The Notebook (2004)– This film is by far the best adaptation of a Sparks novel and easily superior to the other Sparks films despite some glaring flaws. The screenplay was surprisingly good, with a lot of the novel’s important elements retained and even changed for the better. Because of the well adapted source material, the actors Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams delivered good performances though not necessarily award winning material. The production values belies its modest budget with strikingly beautiful cinematography and lensing. There are some pacing issues but generally the direction and editing is more than adequate and consistent. Having praised the screenplay adaptation, it still isn’t perfect. Some very important plot elements in the novel were removed and some parts in the film lacked emotional impact where they should have, as in the novel. This being easily the best Sparks film, this still is very far from the best adaptations out there and pales in comparison to the best of Stephen King’s adaptations. Sparks simply hasn’t found his Frank Darabont. Despite the lukewarm reception this movie got from the critics and Sparks fans, this became Spark’s most financially successful film (including inflation adjusted revenues).
Nights in Rodanthe (2008)– This film felt like a follow-up to the first Sparks film but now starring Richard Gere and Diane Lane. Gere and Lane had worked together with Unfaithful and The Cotton Club and in those movies, their chemistry was undeniably good. Unfortunately, this chemistry didn’t quite work well in this film. Sad to say this was worse than Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember. The main problem here was the badly adapted screenplay. Everything just felt derivative and contrived. The whole romance wasn’t convincing, and even the predictable ending (which everyone will see coming a mile away) turned out to be very underwhelming and lacking in emotional impact. The book was a fascinating read since it was a story with lots of themes melded together to form a captivating love story of forgiveness and redemption. The film tried to pack in these themes but simply couldn’t reach the emotional highs achieved by the novel. This is by far the 2nd worst Nicholas Sparks films ever produced, but don’t take my word for it. This film grossed more then ‘A Walk to Remember’ but that can be attributed to the charisma of both Richard Gere and Diane Lane.
Dear John (2010)– This book continues to hold a special place in my heart as this was quite possibly the most heartbreaking Sparks book I’ve ever read. I waited eagerly for the film to see how the roller coaster ride of emotions would be translated to film. Moreover, I thought Dear John had the most beautiful ending of all Sparks books. It was sad, tragic, heartbreaking, and I had wished the producers wouldn’t Hollywood-ize the ending to make it happier. Alas, the filmmakers decided to go the Hollywood route and removed the most painful elements of the book to make it more appealing to a wider audience. They even changed the ending which I had bragged as the best! Channing Tatum kind of fit well with his role but Amanda Seyfried felt out of place, she just isn’t the Savannah I was hoping for and the screenplay didn’t help. The chemistry isn’t as good as I had hoped but it worked pretty well. This wasn’t a totally bad film, and had this not been based on a Sparks novel this wouldn’t feel as bad. In fact, Lasse Hallstrom managed to direct a competent film here with tight editing and good production values. This also ended up to be as much a financial success as The Notebook thus securing the Sparks name as profitable.
The Last Song (2010)-This film is unique among the Sparks novels since Nicholas Sparks first wrote the screenplay for the film THEN the novel. So it could be said that the novel was an adaptation of his screenplay. Nevertheless, this is included in this listing to make this a definitive and complete list. Now, The Last Song is without a doubt, the WORST Sparks film ever produced. Everything in this film felt just so wrong. Even Nicholas Spark’s screenplay felt more recycled and contrived than ever. The cast starring Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth delivers terribly poor acting and no chemistry whatsoever. Granted, their screenplay wasn’t so good to work with but the kids’ wooden acting is a pain to sit through including Cyrus rather irritating voice. Hemsworth does a better job but still falters most of the time. Even the music feels bland and the titular last song was a poorly composed piano only piece surprisingly lacking in emotional depth. Eventually the final 3rd of the movie was a total bore and devoid of emotion. This film is as uneven and inconsistent as it gets. The novel meanwhile…isn’t good as well. It’s just as formulaic as Sparks can be. Nothing really special. In fact, I can consider The Last Song as Sparks’ weakest novel to date. Despite that, this film somehow managed to do well in the box office no doubt boosted by the legions of Miley Cyrus fans.
In the end, Sparks’ film adaptations are mostly a miss. There still isn’t a single exceptional film adaptation yet which is quite sad since his novels are screaming for quality and Oscar worthy filmmaking. The next Sparks film ‘The Lucky One’ is made of heavier stuff but considering the staff helming the production, I don’t have that much hope either and this will mostly likely be another generic Sparks film.