The Sparks Project

I read tons of chick lit and love me a good chick flick. But for some reason I’ve never read any of Nicholas Sparks’ novels or seen his movies (apart from The Notebook – I mean cmon, everyone’s seen The Notebook, right?)

What have I been missing? Sparks is a prolific American romance writer, with 18 novels under his belt. He’s a New York Times bestselling author, with nearly 100 million copies sold worldwide. So far, 10 movie adaptations have been made based on his books, with the posters known for their ‘White People Nearly Kissing’ look.

What can be learnt from this master of stories about love tearing them apart? What is the formula for success when you want to pull on the heartstrings of millions of women around the world?

So I decided to set myself a little challenge, what I’ve called The Sparks Project. The goal is to watch all of his movies over the next month or so. Will they reduce me to a sobbing mess like The Notebook did or will I tut about how they are overly melodramatic, cheesy and predictable?

So far from my early viewings, some common threads have emerged. To qualify as a Sparkie, there must be:

  • A small town with gorgeous scenery, from rural to beach settings. We also get to see sunrises, sunsets and moons.
  • Sudden downpour of rain which entices characters to kiss. Followed by the lift and kiss.
  • More water – in the form of a lake or ocean. There should also be some watersport action such as surfing, sailing or canoeing.
  • A spot of dancing.
  • Characters tend to drive old cars.
  • Tastefully shot sex scene halfway in.
  • A shock twist at three-quarter mark.
  • A death or two.

Here’s my rundown on each movie, in order of viewing.

I kicked off with The Best of Me (2014).

Dawson Cole (James Marsden – who’s also in The Notebook) works on an oil rig. After surviving an explosion, he hears from an estate attorney that his old friend, Tuck, has died and left him a part-share in his house. The other part belongs to Amanda (Michelle Monaghan), who is unhappily married with her teen son off to college soon. The story then returns to 1992, when Dawson and Amanda first met. There’s a dysfunctional family, class differences, soulmate stuff and lots of gardening. I must admit I spent a lot of the movie distracted by how much the actor (Luke Bracey) who played the young Dawson looked like the late Heath Ledger – and nothing like the actor who played the older Dawson. Plus I can’t hear the name Dawson without wondering where Joey and Pacey are.

My next selection was The Lucky One (2012), because of, you know, Zac Efron.

Logan (Efron) is on a tour of duty in Iraq and narrowly escapes being blown up when he goes to pick up a photo lying in the rubble. It’s of a woman, with the message ‘keep safe’ scrawled on the back. Eight months later, Logan’s left the Marines and is feeling guilty about why he got out alive when others didn’t. With his dog Zeus, he goes to find the woman in the photo – like a walking Forrest Gump. She’s Beth (Taylor Schilling), who runs a boarding kennel for dogs in Louisiana. I spent a lot of the movie distracted by how accomplished Logan was – not only was he a fit soldier who was handy with mechanical things, but he could play piano and chess, and was always offering to help out around the place. And he looked like ZAC EFRON! It was all too much!

Then it was on to Safe Haven (2013).

This one opens rather dramatically with a woman on the run, and a police officer looking for her at the bus terminal. Katie (Julianna Hough) manages to escape and arrives in the sleepy seaside town of Southport. Widower and father of two Alex (Josh Duhamel) works in the general store. As Katie finds some peace in her safe haven, we get plenty of ominous flashbacks to the incident that caused her to flee and the cop still trying to track her down. I’ll leave it there because any more detail will spoil it for anyone who doesn’t know the story. I spent a lot of the movie asking Katie whether it was a good idea to choose such an isolated cabin in the woods when she knows someone is looking for her – painting that floor yellow aint going to keep the bad guys away! Absolutely loved the final plot twist on this one, which shot Safe Haven straight to the top of the Sparks movies chart with a bullet.

My next pick was Dear John (2010), even though it had Channing Tatum in it. Sorry, I am just not a fan.

A special forces soldier – that would be John (Tatum) – and college student Savannah (Amanda Seyfried) fall in love over two weeks of his leave. When he goes back on duty, they share lots of letters but is it enough to keep them together? This has been my least favourite Sparkie so far. Yes, the topic of autism was nicely handled, the army scenes were not overly in your face and the coin-collecting dad was a great character. But the explanation of why things turned out the way they did seemed rushed and the ending was a bit ‘that’s it?’ I sat there for a few moments waiting for something else to happen (apparently it’s an add-on to the book). Admittedly while most women spent a lot of the movie hoping Channing would take off his shirt again, I was wondering if I had any valuable coins in my possession and whether I should have a lasagne for dinner.

It was then time to revisit The Notebook (2004) – the movie that made Nicholas Sparks a household name – and what a hard act to follow!

This is – without doubt – one of the most popular romantic movies of all time. A true sobfest that left me with swollen eyes for days the first time I watched it. This time round, knowing what was to come, I was more prepared and only had to dab away the occasional tear. It is a beautiful, captivating story that unfolds as an old man reads from a notebook to a nursing home patient with dementia. He details a romance between Allie (Rachel McAdams) and Noah (Ryan Gosling) from the day they met at a carnival in 1940. She is rich and her parents have high hopes for her; he is poor and works at the lumber yard, with dreams of restoring an old crumbling homestead. Can the pair remain together against all odds? For lovers of romantic movies, The Notebook sets the standard for passion and heartbreak: the lift-and-kiss in the rain is pure cinematic gold – and becomes a trademark Sparks move – while the casting of Gosling as Noah secured him a place as leading man hunk (even with a beard!). The Notebook is so eternally beloved that many women’s hearts nearly stopped recently when they heard the news that The Notebook characters might return in a TV series. Time to get some shares in Kleenex.

Next up was The Last Song (2010) starring Miley Cyrus – before she went rogue – and her soon-to-be fiance (and then ex) Liam Hemsworth.

This first scene opens with a building on fire and someone being dragged out. (Pay attention as this is sure to be critical to the story.) It then switches to Ronnie (Cyrus) and her younger brother being driven to stay with their dad (Greg Kinnear) for the summer. They pass the burnt-out building so now we know it’s a church. (Definitely this must be a key factor in the plot … ooh the suspense!) Ronnie is not at all pleased to be hanging out with her dad and she certainly isn’t planning on playing his piano even though she has a scholarship to Juilliard waiting for her. For some reason, she’s stopped playing – possibly as payback for her parents’ divorce and her father taking off. Now it’s Ronnie taking off, to check out the town, where she bumps into Will (Hemsworth) playing beach volleyball. Because that is an activity you can do shirtless without it feeling gratuitous. As the two of them bond over sea turtle eggs, Miley – I mean Ronnie – slowly thaws out her relationship with her dad. The Last Song was a tad off-key for me. Maybe it was because the main characters were much younger, or maybe it’s because I still have the horror of Miley’s pasties imprinted on the brain from when she appeared on Jimmy Kimmel recently. And although there was plenty of water – beach house, aquarium etc – there was no rain. I miss the rain. Apparently Sparks wrote this screenplay as a vehicle for the Hannah Montana star and then adapted the book from that. It’s rated PG so is very tame on the passion front.

A Walk to Remember (2002) came highly recommended.

When I first announced I was embarking on this mission on social media, this was the movie that many commenters said was the one to remember. “Loved it – better than The Notebook”, I was told. So it was with high hopes that I settled down to watch the film starring singer Mandy Moore as Jamie, the conservative, cardigan-wearing choirgirl. The story opens with a gang hanging out like they are on the set of The Outsiders. Landon Carter (Shane West) is the coolest of them all and dares a newcomer to jump off a bridge into what looks like a puddle so you know it’s not going to end well. When it doesn’t end well, bad boy Landon is caught by the cops. As punishment, he has to join the school’s drama club. Next we’re in church and now I’m wondering if I’ve mistakenly put Footloose in the DVD player, especially when I realise Jamie’s dad is the preacher man. Who does not like that larrikin Landon. Even though Landon has expressly said he DOES NOT dance. Anyway, Landon and Jamie grow closer as they run lines together and stargaze in the cemetery. Then just as I’m wondering if Mandy Moore’s make-up artist has quit the set because she is looking rather haggard, along comes the tragic twist and from here the movie becomes much more moving and memorable – I later found out the story was inspired by Sparks’ sister.

Look what I finally discovered washed up at my local video store – Message in a Bottle (1999).

It is perhaps fitting that Kevin Costner, aka Mr Waterworld, stars in a movie connected to the water-obsessed Nicholas Sparks. This story kicks off when Chicago Tribute researcher Theresa (Robin Wright Penn) finds a bottle on the beach, with a heartfelt typed message inside to a lost love called Catherine. Theresa tracks down the letter writer – boat builder Garret Blake (is it only me who finds it confusing when a character’s first name is like a surname and his surname is a first name?). His artistic wife died two years earlier from some unknown condition (something to do with being pale, frail and windswept I think) and he’s been unable to move on. Can Theresa buoy up his love life again? Amid a family feud, a father played by Paul Newman, another beautiful home by the water and lots of sailing, not even the characters getting emotional while drenched by rain can keep this one afloat. Costner’s acting was more wooden than his boat, there was no spark between him and his leading lady, and the melodramatic ending was a bit wet – literally. Found it hard not to nod off, to be honest.

Next I got set for a night in with Nights in Rodanthe (2008).

The best thing about this movie is the spectacular house with the blue shutters, standing on stilts as the surf of the Atlantic Ocean pounds underneath. Apparently after filming, the house was condemned and moved to a safer location, where it was restored with an interior to match the movie sets. But back to the movie … Adrienne (Diane Lee) is looking after a guesthouse for a friend, but her only guest is Dr Paul Flanner (Richard Gere), in town to make amends over a medical drama. A hurricane warning is in place, and let’s face it, a house standing slap-bang on the beach is not the place to be during destructive winds. I mean even wild horses couldn’t drag me anywhere near such an exposed building with a storm brewing. But Adrienne and Paul don’t appear concerned at all! Amid the gushing water, banging windows and power failure, the pair get it on. But before these instant soulmates can forge a future together, he needs to see son (James Franco) somewhere in South America. Cue the waterworks. This movie was just ho-hum and some aspects seemed rushed – the downside, I guess, of fitting the intricacies of a novel into a movie timeframe.

And I left The Longest Ride (2015) to last.

I was reluctant to watch this mainly because it had cowboys and rodeos and country music. And I don’t like that whole hoedown scene at all. But with part of this story told as flashbacks to another couple’s relationship, I found it wasn’t complete bullsh** after all. The movie opens with art student Sophia (Britt Robertson) living in a sorority house. She heads off to a bullriding competition where Luke (Scott Eastwood, son of Clint) is making a comeback after a nasty spill. The pair of them later come across a car accident and pull the driver Ira (Alan Alda) to safety and rescue a box of keepsakes. As he recovers in hospital, he shares memories of his late wife, Ruth, who he met when her family fled Austria during World War II. His unfolding story about love and sacrifice has a lesson for Sophia and Luke, whose own relationship is tested by opposing dreams. This was a looong movie but it’s a tender tale – even for those who don’t fancy cowboys!

And so endeth the Sparks Project, until The Choice is out next year!


“I don’t know that love changes. People change. Circumstances change.”

“The greater the love, the greater the tragedy when it’s over.”

“I finally understood what true love meant … love meant that you care for another person’s happiness more than your own, no matter how painful the choices you face might be.”

“Love is like the wind, you can’t see it but you can feel it.”

“Sometimes you have to be apart from people you love, but that doesn’t make you love them any less. Sometimes you love them more.”

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