Missing the Mark: The problem with representation in Nicholas Sparks adaptations

Nicholas Sparks movies are iconic. Ask any middle or upper class millennial woman about movies such as “The Notebook”, “Dear John”, or “The Last Song”, and chances are they will have seen at least one of them. To a generation of girls Sparks movies were representations of idealized relationships even though they all incorporate some sort of tragedy. The dependency of many of these women on their man or the struggle they have between two men taught many of us that this type of helplessness was what men looked for and that one dimensional femininity was the ideal. In addition, all of the female characters in Nicholas Sparks movies are the epitome of emphasized femininity. There are no starring women of color, all of them are slender with long flowing hair, and only one features a couple over the age of 35 as the stars of the main plot points.

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In “The Notebook” Allie, played by Rachel McAdams, falls in love with a poor boy from her town that her family disapproves of. After Allie moves away, Noah sends her a letter every day for a year even as he is shipped abroad for WWII but they get intercepted by Allie’s mom and Allie thinks Noah forgot about her. In the end a grown Allie and Noah meet again and Allie chooses Noah over the rich man her family approves of. This entire plot emphasizes women’s lack of agency and romanticizes the idea of forbidden love. The controlling nature of Allie’s family due to the simple fact the man she loves is from a lower social class is the epitome of the knight in shining armour trope for young middle to upper class girls watching this movie. Allie is shown having the agency to make her own choice in the end but the entire framing of her as being shielded by her family and her lasting devastation over a boy overshadows this eventual agency that is only even revealed in the context of men, not of her own intellect or any other trait.

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In “Dear John” the woman, Savannah, is a college student who meets a soldier named John while he was on leave. He promises to marry her when he comes back permanently later that year, but reenlists due to 9/11 and their love falls apart. When Savannah ends up marrying an older family friend named Tim with a kid eventually, John finds out and also finds out that Tim has cancer. Savannah in this story is simultaneously the star of the film and just an object passed around. In the end of the movie John is told by Tim on his deathbed to love Savannah when he dies but then John proceeds to sell his most valuable possession to pay for Tim’s cancer treatment. Savannah has no choice in any of this matter. While paying for the cancer treatment of the husband of the woman you love is noble, without consultation or discussion it’s controlling and somewhat manipulative. In Dear John the idea that women don’t have full say over their fate is continued. Savannah is positioned as an independent, smart, thoughtful woman at the beginning of the movie but isn’t treated this way by the men in her life. In this way Savannah is the prime example of a post-feminism character who is shown as empowered and capable but isn’t actually treated as such in decision making.

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“The Lucky One” highlights the idea of abduction as romance throughout the entire movie. Beth, yet another small town, skinny, white, cis woman, is oblivious of the story behind Logan, a former Marine. Logan had found a picture of Beth in the middle of a life changing fight in the war and deemed this unknown woman as his savior. When he finds her he starts working for her business and eventually they fall in love, but he doesn’t tell her about how he purposefully sought her out or that he has her picture. This clear violation of trust and crossed boundaries is portrayed as romantic and him protecting her/just being nervous but is truly a form of abduction. As discussed in the Pop Detective “Abduction as Romance” video, the idea that the secret itself is romantic and the subsequent forgiving of the abductor creates a toxic narrative. In movies like this especially, which appeal to young girls for viewership, this idea that a man could be hiding a big secret and that that’s romantic can create a horrible ideal for future relationships and promotes women not having agency, a theme we are finding throughout all the Nicholas Sparks movies even as the women are surface level strong and capable.

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“The Best of Me” incorporates the same flashback narrative style that so many Nicholas Sparks movies do. The main female character, Amanda, is portrayed as a woman torn between two men, her high school love and her husband she has mixed feelings about. In the end Dawson, her high school love, is killed by his criminal father right after Amanda professes her love to him. She ends up staying with her husband who she is clearly not in love with any longer. The femininity of Amanda is based in her young high school self who she seems unable to leave behind, showing her as weak and unable to let go of the past. Dawson is portrayed as this strong, capable man who could save Amanda from herself, leading to the audience understanding Amanda’s strength at the end of the movie as being due in large part to Dawson. The credit for Amanda taking charge of a situation is subtly attributed to the man in the movie and not to the strong female character herself.

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The Longest Ride begins with similar character archetypes as we have previously discussed, Sophia, a young white, cis-gendered female is a college student with dreams of working in the New York City art world falls in love with a boy from an “entirely different world,” Luke, a bull rider. This film is another example of how Nicholas Sparks adaptations are set to portray lovers who are from opposite worlds, but those differences are only ever portrayed through socioeconomic status or varying passions. There is nothing “different” about this couple from any of the others we have seen from Nicholas Sparks films, they are both white, both are able to fund their lifestyles and are heterosexual. This film in particular is another example of how the female gives up her dream to stay close to the man she loves. At the end of the film Sophia is with Luke working at a museum she set up using the paintings that he won at an auction. She is not working in the art mecca of New York City that she went to school to get to. The Longest Ride is another roundabout example of how the female protagonist ends up giving up what she has worked for to stay with a man.

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The Last Song is yet another story of a white, cisgendered, heterosexual couple who are separated only by their social status. Miley Cyrus, who plays the female lead Ronnie is described as “unruly.” This is portrayed with her dark eye makeup, her desire to wear comfortable shoes with formal dresses and abandonment of the norms established by Nicholas Sparks films that reiterate the characteristics of emphasized femininity. The female character is a “rebel” if she is not perfectly portraying a timid, hyper feminine version of a woman. Miley Cyrus has also come out as pansexual, but in this film she is reinforcing the stereotypical tropes of a white heterosexual woman that forgives her man in the end no matter what.

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A Walk to Remember follows the same formula we have already established in the plots from the previous movies. The female character, Jamie, is dying and finds love with Landon after he is forced to spend time with her as a part of community service. It is only with Landon that she can finally experience life to the fullest and complete her life’s bucket list. There is something about this movie poster, the iconic photo from the movie that is troubling. It is similar to almost every other photo we have seen and shows two people in love, ignoring any issues or red flags that may be hidden beneath the surface in the relationship. Stuart Hall’s Work of Representation explains signs in media,  “There was the form (the signifier), and there was the idea or concept in your head with which the form was associated (the signified)” (Hall, 16). When we see a movie poster like the one above we are immediately brought to think of romantic comedies, often based on Nicholas Sparks films, serving as the signifier. The signified idea that is reinforced is that love of a man trumps all for the female characters. We inherently know that whatever the story is about it will revolve around the woman not feeling complete without the man.

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This film is sees perhaps the most diverse of all of the aforementioned examples, not because there are diverse examples of representation of varying sexualities, genders or races, but because of the ages of the main characters. While the older age of the main characters can expand the audience somewhat there are still the same inherent problems of representation in Nicholas Sparks adaptations that we see with the younger leads. In her chapter, Representation, Lisa Henderson explains ““For most viewers, however, inclusion is strongest when differences within the group are represented. Tender, complex representations that spark ‘intersectionally’ humanize historically excluded or stereotyped populations” (Henderson, 174). With a film like Nights of Rodanthe there are not enough diverse representations to even qualify a discussion of “intersectionality.” While the intended audiences age range could vary for this film as compared to a movie like The Last Song, there are still entire groups of society that are missing from the narrative.

The narratives reinforced time and time and time again through Nicholas Sparks adaptations are those where females have no agency or lose their agency when they meet a man, those of heterosexual love explicitly, and those with no sign of diversity in gender or race. We have enough stories that do not represent the world we live in. While stories like the Notebook and A Walk to Remember may be seen as “iconic” in pop culture, the lack of representation and consistent portrayals of female characters lacking agency leaves much to be desired.

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