To most film buffs, Nicholas Sparks movies are a joke. They’re corny, sentimental, and formulaic. The performances usually aren’t great, and neither are the scripts.
But these movies are made for a particular viewer, and I am that viewer. What can I say? I’m a sucker for a cheesy and/or weepy romances, whether they’re based on Nicholas Sparks novels or classic literature, and I’m capable of enjoying a film while acknowledging its obvious faults. About once a year, like clockwork, I find myself headed to the theater for the latest Sparks flick, which I can be sure will include at least one death, one over-dramatic couple fight, and one rain-soaked smooch.
I’ve seen every single one of these films, which I would be ashamed to admit if I believed in guilty pleasures. But I refuse to guilt myself for the things I enjoy, so instead of hiding in shame, I’ll proudly wave my “bad taste” flag and share my best-to-worst ranking of Nicholas Sparks movies, in anticipation of this week’s The Longest Ride home video release.
(This post will include a few spoilers, but are they really considered spoilers when the films closely follow the same blueprint?)
BEST: The Notebook (2004)
A young lady with oppressive parents and an already-written, 50-year plan for her life finds freedom in a romance with a charming, passionate young man from the other side of the tracks. It’s over-hyped, yes, but The Notebook is undoubtedly the best Nicholas Sparks movie. And with the romance genre slowly becoming a lost art, it’ll likely be remembered as one of the best lovey-dovey films of the 21st century. The performances are actually good, with stellar chemistry between Rachel McAdams and Ryan Gosling. It’s the weepiest of the weepy — the most emotionally-effective Sparks movie.
SECOND-BEST: Message in a Bottle (1999)
Message in a Bottle has a distinct advantage over the majority of the Sparks filmography: a truly good cast, which includes Kevin Costner, Robin Wright, Illeana Douglas, and the great Paul Newman. This was also the first movie to be based on one of Sparks’ books, released before the writer made his name as “the guy behind all of those schmaltzy movie adaptations.” Aside from the dramatic and deadly ending, the film is a tad on the slow side, which is why I rank it below The Notebook. But the central performances are good and the story has an element of mystery thrown in early on to hook the viewer. (Robin Wright’s character tries to track down the writer of a typed letter that she found in a bottle on the beach.)
TEAR-JERKIN’ GOOD: A Walk to Remember (2002)
Story time: While visiting a local riverfront park a few years ago, I saw a young man propose to his girlfriend while his friend blasted a Mandy Moore song from this film’s soundtrack in the speakers of a nearby car. And that tells you all you need to know about this film. It came along at just the right time to be adored by a generation of impressionable young’n’s, who ate up the story of a terminally-ill, devout Christian girl and the “bad boy” boyfriend that she helps reform… before, y’know, dying. This one’s lovable mostly for reasons of nostalgia, but considering the lower quality of some of the more recent Sparks features, that’s reason enough for it to land highly on the list. It has some genuinely sweet and sad moments.
GHOSTLY AND GRATIFYING: Safe Haven (2013)
The most suspenseful entry into the Sparks-based filmography, Safe Haven tells the story of a woman (Julianne Hough) who escapes an abusive marriage and finds a new life in a small seaside town. There she meets a man (Josh Duhamel) and falls in love with him… while also forming a friendship with the ghost of his dead wife. It sounds ridiculous, and it is, but it’s also one of the better Sparks movies. The script improves upon the source material (yes, I actually read this one… regrettably) with dialogue that is much more natural. The performances are decent, and Hough and Duhamel make a nice (if somewhat awkward, at times) pair.
DECENT DUAL TALES: The Longest Ride (2015)
Two stories are told in this Sparks romance. One follows a rodeo man who isn’t willing to give up his dangerous career, even for love. The other is a WWII-era tale of love nearly lost due to circumstances beyond the couple’s control. The period storyline, which stars Oona Chaplin and Jack Huston (with Alan Alda playing the older version of Huston’s character) is more successfully-told than the present-set storyline. It makes the film a lot more interesting to watch than it would have been as a simple “Southern rodeo boy and Jersey college girl” romance. While I did find myself wishing the whole film was about Ira and Ruth at times, it’s a pretty cute watch altogether.
PLEASANTLY PUPPY-FILLED: The Lucky One (2012)
Zac Efron stars as a US Marine who finds a photo of a woman (portrayed by Taylor Schilling) while on a tour of duty and carries the photo as a good luck charm. Returning to the States, he struggles with survivor guilt, and he decides to take a walk… from Colorado to Louisiana, with his dog, to track the mystery woman down. This film falls on the forgettable end of the Sparks spectrum — so forgettable, in fact, that I always confuse it with that other Zac Efron movie where he’s being stalked by his dead brother (Charlie St. Cloud). But it’s not the worst Sparkstravaganza by any measure. Re-watching it yesterday for the purpose of being able to say something other than “I always confuse this movie with Charlie St. Cloud,” I actually enjoyed it quite a bit. The performances aren’t terrible, there’s some fun banter between Efron and Schilling, and while the story is far-fetched it isn’t quite as try-hard twisty as the usual Sparks fare. The film is also made enjoyable by the abundance of puppies in the cast.
AN ADEQUATE AFFAIR: The Best of Me (2014)
High school sweethearts from different sides of the tracks reunite after twenty years apart in this love story, which includes the craziest plot twist of any Nicholas Sparks film. Unhappily-married Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) has a family, and returns to them after her fling with her high school love Dawson (James Marsden). But then, in the film’s eleventh hour, Dawson ends up saving her son’s life via heart transplant after suffering a violent death. SERIOUSLY. The shocking turn of events almost makes up for the fact that young Dawson looks nothing like James Marsden. Clearly, a few scenes regarding Dawson’s total face transplant as a twenty-something were left on the cutting room floor.
TRAGIC-BUT-TOLERABLE: Dear John (2010)
Before Channing Tatum returned to his “exotic dancer” roots as Magic Mike or teamed with Jonah Hill to reboot 21 Jump Street, he starred in this weepy, all-American romance of a soldier and his hometown girl communicating through letters. When I saw this movie in the theater I wasn’t crazy about it; I’ve grown to like it more since re-watching. There’s a lot going on, as you’d expect from a Sparks-based film — an autistic parent, a terrorist attack, a love triangle, nostalgic flashbacks about coins. Tatum and Amanda Seyfried have nice chemistry, Tatum as the bumbling, golden-hearted macho man and Seyfried as the annoyingly good “good girl.” (She doesn’t drink, doesn’t smoke, only curses in her mind, and spends her spring break rebuilding a house for charity. GOODBYE.) These characters should be insufferable, but the actors make them kind of endearing.
BLEGH: The Last Song (2010)
I never thought I’d see myself name-drop Miley Cyrus twice twice in the span of less than a week, especially not on this blog, but here we are. Thor’s little brother and Miss Wrecking Ball 2013 star in this tale of a grumpy teenage girl who ignores her dying father in favor of a summer romance with a hunky, island-dwelling Southern fella. Perhaps that’s a bit of an over-dramatic take on the premise, but I’m nearing the end of the list now. I was bound to pick up some dramatic tendencies after spending an extended amount of time reflecting on Nicholas Sparks movies. The Last Song lands low on the list because the central couple is pretty obnoxious, and because every single member of the cast is outshone by young Bobby Coleman, who plays younger brother to Cyrus.
WHY?: Nights in Rodanthe (2008)
Diane Lane and Richard Gere star in this tale of a killer doctor who flees to a beach house, where he has a fling with a not-quite-divorced mother of two. Sounds like a crazy plot, riiiiight? …Not quite. Unfortunately, this is the most dull Sparks flick, though it does provide a few unintentional laughs. With all of the elegance of a late-’90s Lifetime Movie Network original, the only draw for this film is the North Carolina coastal scenery. The dialogue is awful, and just about everyone seems miscast. Diane Lane is the strongest link in the performance chain, but the fact that her efforts and the scenery are the only redeeming qualities of this film make it the lowest-ranked Sparks tale. Nights in Rodanthe is a failed attempt at creating another Message in a Bottle.
There you have it — my definitive, expert ranking of the ten “masterpieces” churned out by the Sparks adaptation machine thus far. Feel free to share your own ranking or simply vent your love/hatred for these movies in the comments below!