Sparks Notes, a Critical Analysis of Nicholas Sparks Movies: The Notebook
There are two types of bad media—in particular bad movies—that fascinate me, or at least fascinate me enough for me to want to examine them. The first is the strangely bad. The list of strangely bad movies has been codified, rewritten, and codified again so regularly that me bringing up their titles is probably pointless. Equally pointless at that point is my analysis. My love for The Room is strong enough that my tumblr is named after it, but it’s been picked over so many times that there’s not much left for me to say.
The second kind of bad that fascinates me is stuff that’s bad but is also monstrously successful. There’s this great interview with Werner Herzog where he says that the poet, the musician, the filmmaker, must not avert their eyes from what is popular, no matter how personally distasteful they find it, and that’s advice I’ve taken to heart. I mean, the Transformers film series may be some of the worst movies ever filmed, but they have collectively grossed 3.7 Billion dollars, so I think they merit some analysis.
But that’s not what I’m doing today, because while the Transformers series has grossed 3.7 Billion dollars, it’s done so loudly and in front of everyone. The subject of this article, the movies based on Nicolas Sparks’ books, have quietly managed to gross over 900 million dollars without anyone really noticing or feeling like picking them apart. Since no one else is doing it, I might as well. Thus begins my dissertation on white people kissing in the rain.
I’d originally planned on beginning this series of articles at the chronological beginning, with 1999’s Message in a Bottle (stay tuned) but as long as I’m here, I might as well open with the movie that brought me to the party, because the impetus to write these articles came a couple months ago, on Valentine’s Day. I was traveling that day and managed to catch the first 10–15 minutes of The Notebook in an airport, and what I saw … kind of weirded me out.
I’ll do a broader plot rundown in a moment, but the movie opens with the main character Noah (Ryan Gosling) briefly running into his love interest, Allie (Rachel McAdams), at a fair. He immediately asks her out, but she refuses, for the very understandable reason that she doesn’t want to go out with him. He then follows her around the fair, waits until she’s on the ferris wheel, charges into her seat (between her and her actual date), and demands that she go out with him.
She refuses again, since he’s an unknown and possibly dangerous person, and the ferris wheel attendant demands he stop endangering all three of their lives by putting more people in a seat than the seat was designed to hold. He begins to climb down, but while hanging there, asks her to go out with him again. When she refuses, he begins to hold on by one hand, and more or less explicitly informs her that if she doesn’t agree, he will let go. Only when she agrees does he resume climbing down. Hm.
Hey, fun fact: Threatening to kill yourself to get what you want is textbook abusive behavior.
Before we wander into the actual analysis of the film, let’s discuss a subject that always winds up more controversial than I think it should be: The fact that the media you consume can alter your worldview. I don’t think this should be that much of a hard concept to wrap one’s brain around (I mean, it’s the basis for all advertising), but I think the problem is that when I say one thing, people often hear another, so let’s explore that.
The place this particular subject always comes up is violence, as in, “Can the media you consume make you violent?” and the answer is … well no, but it’s a complicated no. Media can’t alter your behavior that much if you’re not already a violent person. What it can do is change how violent you think the world around you is. If you’re not a violent person, that can make you more dismissive or accepting of the idea of violence, especially as an acceptable response in certain situations. If you’re already a violent person, it can make you think your violent tendencies are more normal, and make you less critical of your violent urges.
So let’s take that principal and apply it to the above. Seeing a lot of media that plays up abusive behavior as romantic (as the many, many, many thinkpieces on 50 Shades and Twilight will attest, there is no shortage of media that presents abusive behavior as romantic) can’t necessarily make you abusive. What it can do is make you less critical of abusive behavior you see in life.
Let’s be clear: No one is saying that Sparks, Twilight author Meyer, or anyone else shouldn’t be allowed to write whatever they want, but being aware and critical of what a piece of media is saying is the best way to keep from being unduly affected by it.
Okay, I am nearly 900 words into this article and I haven’t even begun talking about the movie properly, which really is par for the course with me. So, without further ado, I will begin with my examination of The Notebook, with what I hope will become the recurring elements of each article, along with a brief introduction on what that segment is. Don’t worry; these long-winded introductions won’t be in every article.
This segment is pretty self-explanatory, just a quick recap of the plot of the movie.
In this case, The Notebook is the inspiring story of two teenagers who take their summer romance way too seriously. Okay, okay, that’s not fair. I’m sorry; it’s not that bad. I should probably make it clear: I’m not necessarily against romance in film, and I’m not completely immune to sentimentality (I like When Harry Met Sally, Imagine Me & You, hell I’ve been known to defend Love Actually on occasion), but I dislike feeling like a movie is manipulating me, and this movie (and I assume most of Sparks’ oeuvre) is wall-to-wall manipulation.
Initially, the movie seems devoted to an old man (James Garner) reading a book to a woman with dementia (Gena Rowlands), but that’s just a framing device, as the book is devoted to Noah (Ryan Gosling) and Allie (Rachel McAdams), who are two teenagers living in the 1940s. At least, I think they’re both teenagers. They say Allie is 17, but I don’t think they ever specify Noah’s age. I hope he’s 17 or 18, otherwise it just got even weirder.
Anyway, after the aforementioned stalking, they begin dating, but because he’s poor and she’s not, her parents don’t approve, eventually driving them apart. Noah tries sending letters to her—one a day for a whole year, which is a cliché I’ve never been super fond of. I mean, wouldn’t he want her to have a chance to get the letter and write back before he sent the next one? I know mail used to go three times a day, but still.
Anyway, she eventually goes off to college, while he eventually winds up in World War 2, losing a tertiary character along the way. When he gets back, his dad sells his childhood home to help Noah buy a big house he wants to fix up. He finds out that while he was off in Europe, Allie started dating another soldier, who’s rich (and therefore her parents approve) and to whom she has just gotten engaged, causing Noah to go a little nuts.
Allie eventually goes to see him to see if she made a mistake. Of course they reconcile, of course they sleep together, and of course she eventually leaves her fiancé for him. Back in the framing device, it’s revealed that, of course, the old couple are Noah and Allie. They wander around in circles in the framing device for a bit until Noah has a heart attack, Allie another bout of dementia, and then they finally die together in bed. Credits.
Sparks famously once said that no one is writing in his genre, apparently unaware that his books are basically Mad Libs of the same plot over and over. So this section will be devoted to the specific answers to those Mad Libs.
All Sparks’ movies/books feature a generic obstacle that the romance will overcome. That’s par for the course in romance stories, but that doesn’t automatically excuse Sparks’ stories. In this case, the main obstacle is the fact that Allie’s parents don’t approve of Noah for being poor—not in any, you know, obvious way, but more on that in a second—and I guess the fact that Noah heads off to World War 2.
But of course, Sparks isn’t just writing romance novels. He’s writing tragedies … which just makes them generic tearjerkers, but never mind that. In this case, the tragedy is in the framing device (which kind of undercuts it) with Old Allie suffering from alzheimer’s and subsequent dementia.
What frustrates me about both the Obstacle and the Tragedy is how completely uninterested the movie is in exploring either of them. There’s no attempt to look at social or class divides and certainly no attempt to depict them on-screen. Noah lives in a large, two-story house, easily gets the money to purchase a much larger one, and never seems to want for anything. An attempt to show the financial strain Noah is under might have made it land a little stronger—or, you know, at all.
Hell, The Notebook‘s not even particularly interested in World War II. They say that Noah and his redshirt friend were in Patton’s 3rd Army, which means they were in the Battle of the Bulge—the largest and bloodiest battle the US was involved in in World War II—but we barely get to see even a scene of it. We just get a couple of quick cuts that wouldn’t pass muster as a establishing shots.
But as much as the class divide and World War II are missed opportunities, the alzheimer’s subplot is an even bigger one. Alzheimer’s is such a horrifying and difficult disease to deal with that it seems impossible that the movie can’t wring any real emotion out of it, but it manages. You’d think that older Noah might be angry, sad, or even just frustrated that his wife of however many years doesn’t recognize him anymore, but he never seems any more than mildly put out.
That’s what so frustrating about it. One of the most raw and affecting love stories I’ve ever seen in film was Michael Haneke’s Amour, because could see the male lead fighting against his sadness and anger and frustration while caring for his wife, while still being in love with her. It makes the relationship feel more real and therefore affecting.
The Unhealthy Relationship:
Once again, I hope this particular section is self explanatory. In this case, I’m going to ball together all the stuff the movie depicts as romantic or even just acceptable, which really is not great, and we’ll talk about it. This is the main point of these articles, so I’m hoping this is the section that will really land with people.
The Notebook has the aforementioned stalking and suicide threatening right at the start. It’s more or less the first thing Noah does on-screen, which had the side affect of turning me so far against him that he basically had no chance of me ever liking him. The fact that he also demanded that she yell that she wanted to go out with him during his emotional blackmail certainly didn’t help.
The movie also doesn’t do a great job of depicting them as a happy couple outside of their start. The narrator openly states that Noah and Allie fight all the time, and they both comment on it later, which doesn’t seem particularly healthy. They try to brush it off by saying that they still love each other (this film is a master of Tell, Don’t Show), but it’s an odd thing to draw attention to.
Also she cheats on her fiancé? Like, I know the movie is pushing the idea that she and Noah are soulmates, and she does eventually leave him for Noah, but it’s still an incredibly s****y thing to do to the guy, who seems like a perfectly nice person.
All of this points towards the point that I made earlier, back at the beginning of the plot summary: Noah and Allie are just a couple of stupid teenagers who are taking their relationship too seriously. Of course the movie isn’t intending to portray it that way, but it’s the way it comes across to me. Neither character really matures or grows during their time apart, which I suppose explains why they’re so eager to get back to each other, because they’re both still teenagers at heart. There’s nothing wrong with a high school romance, in theory, but portraying it as this huge be-all and end-all is weird, especially when there are elements of abuse in how the relationship started.
But just analyzing one of the Sparks based movies would never be enough for me, so tune in next time, when I continue my long and probably painful journey through the entire Nicolas Sparks film oeuvre. When will next time be? Hell if I know. But until next time…
James is a Connecticut-based, Alaskan-born cinephile with an obsession with The Room and a god complex. His interests include Warhammer 40k, the films of Nicolas Cage (both good and bad), and obscure moments in history. He writes movie reviews for Moar Powah under the name Elessar and also has a blog, where is reviewing every episode of The X-Files at I Want to Review. His twitter can be found at Elessar42, and his tumblr can be found at FootballInTuxedos.
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