With Dear John and The Last Song arriving at the cinema, Stuart Heritage wonders if the author will ever deviate from his lucrative formula
Last Friday saw the release of Dear John, a soppy romance about a boy and a girl whose relationship is tested by an event that neither of them can control. Next Friday sees the release of The Last Song, a soppy romance about a boy and a girl whose relationship is tested by an event that neither of them can control. Both have bittersweet endings. Both are guaranteed to make girls of a certain age weep uncontrollably. Both are based on books by Nicholas Sparks.
Sorry, that should have read “literary phenomenon Nicholas Sparks”. He’s made his fortune – and with more than 55m book sales and a run of movies adapted from those books grossing $300m, it is a fortune – by finding out what upsets a particular kind of girl or young woman the most and then exploiting it mercilessly. He doesn’t write stories as much as churn out endless variations of a single theme. A boy and a girl will meet (one will probably be rich and one will probably be poor) and initially clash. Then they’ll fall in love. Then they’ll be separated, possibly by tragedy. And then a bigger tragedy will bring them back together at the end. The music swells, there’s a slow-motion kiss (possibly on a beach, possibly in the rain, preferably both). Girls will cry. Boys, who have invariably been tricked into watching by a girl, will start praying for the sweet release of death. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Buy gigantic house.
That’s not to say that all Sparks adaptations are identical, of course. The Last Song features a dreadfully earnest big-eyed child whose sole purpose is to be annoyingly zany for the first half and then uncomfortably distraught for the second, and Dear John doesn’t. And Nights in Rodanthe was the only Sparks film to star Richard Gere. And The Notebook was the only Nicholas Sparks film to be called The Notebook. See? Completely different.
They do all feature death, though. That’s a given. Someone always has to die at the end. In fact, guessing who will die and what they’ll die of is usually the best part of watching a Sparks film. It’s usually a parent of the lead character, but don’t let that lull you into a false sense of security. Sometimes it’s a lead character, and sometimes several characters end up being wiped out, one by one, by a smorgasbord of terminal medical complaints. In the end, though, it doesn’t matter who it happens to, and it doesn’t matter how it happens – there will be death, and chances are you will cry.
That’s a guarantee. That’s Sparks’s raison d’être. If his kneejerk emotional suckerpunching – sadness, happiness, sadness, massive sadness, happiness – doesn’t leave you at least a little misty by the time the credits roll, then he has failed. Think of the films of his novels as female-targeted versions of the Saw movies: they might not be intelligent, but people still know that they’ll experience a very specific emotional response from watching it. Only instead of feeling nausea from watching a man drown in a tub of putrified pig guts, you’re bawling your eyes out because someone’s dad has just keeled over with stomach cancer. Sparks’s version would probably make a less exciting rollercoaster, but the formula is basically the same.
And he’s merciless about sticking to it. During my screening of The Last Song this week, the entire cinema had disintegrated into such a spectacular cacophony of sniffles by the final third that I didn’t know whether to laugh or order in a skipload of Vicks Sinex. Admittedly, it was playing slap-bang to its target audience – I was possibly the only male in the room and definitely the only person old enough to grow pubic hair – but the kaleidoscope of red eyes and wobbly knees as the credits rolled was a testament to the power of the Sparks blueprint.
But the problem with the blueprint, like the Saw blueprint, is that familiarity has weakened it. So it’s not surprising to see that his appeal might be starting to fade. The Last Song should have been Sparks’s masterpiece; not only did he have a hand in writing the screenplay for the first time, but it also starred tween monolith Miley Cyrus. The Last Song wasn’t just Sparksier than anything ever created, but Cyrus’s army of rabid teenage followers should have given it unbeatable box-office clout. However, it wasn’t to be – The Last Song opened to a measly $16m in America, putting it behind Clash of the Titans, a generic Tyler Perry movie and a week-old cartoon about some dragons.
Not that Sparks has any reason to be worried. His films aren’t meant to be reviewed (which would explain the 16% that Rottentomatoes handed The Last Song) or even seen at a cinema. No, Nicholas Sparks films traditionally fare best on DVD where, without wanting to stereotype anyone too harshly, they can be watched by all sorts of just-dumped women in pyjamas, on their sofa, surrounded by empty ice cream tubs and hundreds of soggy tissues, without fear of blowing snot across whoever’s sitting in the row immediately in front of them. Plus they’re cheap – despite its underwhelming opening, The Last Song has already made its budget back twice over, and that’s even before its European release.
That’s assuming that you want to judge the films in terms of financial success, anyway. If you want to judge them by the number of imitators they’ve spawned, then Sparks becomes even more impressive. Without The Notebook there would be no PS I Love You, no American remake of The Lake House, no My Sister’s Keeper, No The Time Traveller’s Wife and arguably no Twilight. That might read like a bulletproof rationale to exile Sparks somewhere far away to a land without any typewriters, but you simply can’t deny his success.
It would just be nice if he could find a second story. No matter how you look at it, Nights in Rodanthe was The Notebook with horses, Dear John was The Notebook with tin helmets and The Last Song is The Notebook with a dreadfully earnest big-eyed child in it. It’s not as if Sparks doesn’t rate his own abilities. “I write in a genre that was not defined by me,” he told USA Today recently. “The examples were not set out by me. They were set out 2,000 years ago by Aeschylus, Sophocles and Euripides. They were called the Greek tragedies.” In the same interview he held up a copy of A Farewell to Arms and said: “That’s what I write.” And then he castigated the “pulpy, overwrought, melodramatic” Cormac McCarthy. If he’s as good as he reckons, Sparks does seem to be coasting on his success a little.
Not that it will change any time soon. Sparks books still to be adapted into films include The Lucky One (a man falls in love with a woman, but their relationship is tested by forces beyond their control), The Choice (a man falls in love with a woman, but their relationship is tested by forces beyond their control) and The Guardian (a bearded sandal-wearer falls in love with another bearded sandal-wearer, but their relationship is tested by a Nigel Slater recipe for organic chard soup beyond their control). The chances of Nicholas Sparks changing his formula now seem pretty distant.
But why should he? After all, his one story has made Sparks rich beyond belief, so why not recycle it again and again each year? After all, endless permutations of The Notebook might seem like a dismal prospect, but it’s no more dismal than the thought of Sparks writing, say, Die Hard. Better the devil you can barely tolerate, as it were.
The Last Song is released next Friday