Nicholas Sparks’ 11 Variations on a Single Story

While there may not be some grand interconnected universe amongst the works of Nicholas Sparks (or maybe there is; I don’t know), there is a certain formula to his stories that provide a certain consistency to his books, and in turn, their film adaptations. Among them:

  • Two (relatively affluent, definitely white and heterosexual) people will fall in love within 20 seconds of meeting each other;
  • A wise older person will offer sage advice on love and life;
  • The location will be set outside of a city, likely in a Southern town and/or a beach town;
  • There will be at least one death, or at least a significant near-death experience; and
  • There’s a 50/50 chance the story will end on a happy or bittersweet moment.

Of course, there are some slight variations on the formula. Sometimes the stories get a little…what’s the word?…strange. Also, the age of the couple in question can vary from teens to middle-age. There’s certainly an audience for these films, though there’s also plenty of room for critical derision. I won’t argue against the derision – hell, you’ll see plenty of it from me below. But in the rare moments where one of these adaptations gets it right, the connections are palpable.

So here, in what will probably the only Out Ranked list heavily weighted in favor of films I don’t recommend seeing (seriously, avoid all but the first film or two), I take a look at all 11 of the film adaptations of Nicholas Sparks’ works, to give you an idea of what to really avoid.

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11. The Choice (2016)

Lead Couple: Travis Parker (Benjamin Walker) and Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer)
Wise Older Figure: Shep Parker (Tom Wilkinson)

Basic Setup: Two neighbors in a small town wind up in a relationship that’s tested by major life events.

My Thoughts: If there’s something worse than one of Sparks’ ridiculous, non-sensical twists, it’s the lack of any dramatic heft whatsoever. And that’s a large part of what makes The Choice the worst Nicholas Sparks adaptation to date. It doesn’t help matters that, as vanilla as Sparks likes to go with his couples, they’ve never been as bland as Travis and Gabby.


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10. The Best of Me (2014)

Lead Couple: Amanda Collier (Michelle Monaghan) and Dawson Cole (James Marsden)
Wise Older Figure: Tuck (Gerald McRaney)
Other Notable Couple: Young Amanda (Liana Liberato) and Young Dawson (Luke Bracey)

Basic Setup: Two former high school sweethearts are reunited when a beloved friend passes away.

My Thoughts: Of the different Nicholas Sparks adaptations, this is a definite low point. First, there’s the story itself, which has one of the most absolutely insane “twists” of any Sparks story. Then there’s the casting: there isn’t any chemistry between Amanda and Dawson, in either their younger or older incarnations. Marsden was cast at the last minute, after Paul Walker’s passing; that partially explains why Dawson looks so different in his younger vs. older versions.


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9. Safe Haven (2013)

Lead Couple: Katie Feldman/Erin Tierney (Julianne Hough) and Alex Wheatley (Josh Duhamel)
Wise (Not Quite) Older Figure: Jo (Cobie Smulders)

Basic Setup: A young woman arrives in a small town. As she slowly becomes part of the community, she develops a relationship with a widowed store owner. But a dark part of her past threatens to rear its head.

My Thoughts: I liked this movie better when it was Sleeping with the Enemy, with Julia Roberts. Hough should stick to dancing (with the stars), because she’s not a solid enough actress for this sort of thing. Her chemistry with Duhamel is non-existent. Oh, and there’s the creepy supernatural element that pops up at the end. It’s like Sparks decided this would be the story where he would try out some different genres.


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8. The Last Song (2010)

Lead Couple: Ronnie Miller (Miley Cyrus) and Will Blakelee (Liam Hemsworth)
Wise Older Figure: Steve Miller (Greg Kinnear)

Basic Setup: A teenage girl visiting her estranged father for the summer falls for a volleyball player.

My Thoughts: The most notable thing to come out of this film is the real-life relationship between Cyrus and Hemsworth, which ended after an engagement and led to some of the better content on Cyrus’ Bangerz album. Here, though, Cyrus is overwhelmed by her more talented costars.


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7. The Lucky One (2012)

Lead Couple: Logan Thibault (Zac Efron) and Beth Green (Taylor Schilling)
Wise Older Figure: Ellie (Blythe Danner)

Basic Setup: A Marine sergeant returns home from Iraq with a photograph he found of a woman. He tracks the woman down, takes a job at her family-run kennel, and eventually woos her.

My Thoughts: On the one hand, Efron and Schilling seem much more than three years apart in age. On the other hand, they do have some rather steamy love-making (because it’s never just sex in a Nicholas Sparks film!) scenes. It’s standard Sparks fare, but this one at least fits comfortably into “mediocre” territory.


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6. Message in a Bottle (1999)

Lead Couple: Garret Blake (Kevin Costner) and Theresa Osborne (Robin Wright)
Wise Older Figure: Dodge Blake (Paul Newman)

Basic Setup: A researcher at the Chicago Tribune discovers a message in a bottle (there’s the title!), which she traces to the widower who wrote them.

My Thoughts: This film has the advantage of being the first Sparks book adapted for the screen, which made it more fresh when it came out (even if it’s still not fresh). The ending, though, is the first in a line of contrived endings. But hey, at least this film has Paul Newman to steal scenes.


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5. Nights in Rodanthe (2008)

Lead Couple: Paul Flanner (Richard Gere) and Adrienne Willis (Diane Lane)
Wise(-ish) Younger Figures: Mark Flanner (James Franco) and Amanda Willis (Mae Whitman)

Basic Setup: A doctor traveling to reconcile with his estranged son is forced to check in to an inn, where he begins a passionate affair with an unhappily married woman.

My Thoughts: I feel like the outcome of this story, in some ways, is the most in alignment with Sparks’ conservative leanings: look at the basic setup, and imagine whether the ending is happy or not. It’s an easy guess. Gere and Lane have a nice chemistry, but it’s not enough to save the film.


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4. Dear John (2010)

Lead Couple: John Tyree (Channing Tatum) and Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried)
Wise Older Figure: Mr. Tyree (Richard Jenkins)

Basic Setup: A young soldier and a college student fall for each other over her spring break. Over the course of seven years, they’re separated by his deployments and other developments in their lives.

My Thoughts: As clichéd as any Sparks story, this one at least benefits from its lead performances. Tatum and Seyfried have strong chemistry, and the film’s hopeful ending is different enough from other Sparks adaptations to make this one stand out a bit.


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3. The Longest Ride (2015)

Lead Couple: Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) and Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood)
Wise Older Figure: Ira Levinson (Alan Alda)
Other Notable Couple: Young Ira (Jack Huston) and Ruth Levinson (Oona Chaplin)

Basic Setup: A champion bull rider and a college student with a passion for art grow close with each other, and with an older man whose own love story with his wife inspire the young couple.

My Thoughts: While not great, The Longest Ride is better than recent Sparks films. The stakes for Sophia and Luke aren’t quite as dramatic as they are for other couples in Sparks’ stories, and there’s some decent chemistry between Robertson and Eastwood. What makes the film, though, are the extended flashbacks to Ira and Ruth, which span the course of decades and show a more realistic view of the ways love can change and grow over the course of a lifetime.


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2. A Walk to Remember (2002)

Lead Couple: Landon Carter (Shane West) and Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore)
Wise Older Figure: Hegbert Sullivan (Peter Coyote)

Basic Setup: A popular high school student is sentenced to community service after a hazing incident. He’s forced to seek help from the mild-mannered daughter of the town’s Baptist minster. When they fall for each other, he’s forced to deal with his drop in popularity while she’s forced to deal with both a strict father and a secret she’s been keeping.

My Thoughts: There’s something about Sparks’ basic formula that works better in a high school setting. At least there, the irrationality can be chalked up to teenage hormones. It’s cheesy and manipulative with pulling heartstrings, but to its credit, it earns those moments more than most Sparks adaptations.


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1. The Notebook (2004)

Lead Couple: Noah Calhoun (Ryan Gosling) and Allie Hamilton (Rachel McAdams)
Other Notable Couple: Older Noah (James Garner) and Older Allie (Gena Rowlands)

Basic Setup: An old man regularly visits a woman at a nursing home and reads a story from an old notebook about a young couple whose love affair was halted during World War II.

My Thoughts: The Notebook was the third Sparks book adapted for the big screen, and there’s a reason every film since then has referenced this film in its promotional materials. Like most Sparks film adaptations, this ultimately comes down to casting, and Gosling and McAdams are the rare pairing who actually generate sparks. There’s a passion to Noah and Allie that elevates the film from the rest of the Sparks pack. Add in James Garner’s sensitive performance, which sets the standard for an older figure performance in these films.

[NOTE: Originally published April 10, 2015. Most recently updated February 5, 2016.]
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