I love to hate and hate to love author Nicholas Sparks' movies. Often, I’ll start a movie adapted from of one of his books with the goal of watching it ironically, maybe with a bottle of wine and some friends. But by the end, I’ll find myself misty-eyed and sincerely invested in Sparks’ stories of improbable reunions, passion in the face of tragedy, and two white people finding the courage to almost kiss.
Because not all tales of true love are created equal, we’re ranking all eleven Nicholas Sparks movies, from the so-bad-they’re-not-even-good to the classics. Disagree with our findings? Let us know in the comments below!
1. The Choice
The Choice is the most recent (and likely the last) movie Sparks himself produced under the umbrella of his now-shuttered company Nicholas Sparks Productions. It also happens to be my least favorite of the Sparks oeuvre, proof that if you keep making what is essentially the same film over and over again eventually you’ll see diminishing returns.
The plot follows the romance between med student Gabby (Teresa Palmer) and her neighbor, veterinarian and incorrigible bachelor Travis (Benjamin Walker). Like many of the movies on this list, The Choice’s main characters, swept up in their helpless attraction to each other, cheat on the people they’re actually committed to. Many Sparks movies frame the protagonists' infidelity in such a way that I find myself still rooting for them. But in The Choice, I was appalled by the selfishness that both Gabby and Travis showed to the people they were with before true love hit them like a wrecking ball and apparently absolved them of all moral responsibility.
I especially had a hard time rooting for Travis, whose good ol’ boy insistence on avoiding the ‘complications’ of committed relationships seemed more like misogyny to me than anything else. My choice? Skip this and watch a different Sparks film instead.
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2. The Best of Me
I appreciate that this movie allows James Marsden — who plays Allie’s boyfriend in The Notebook— to be moderately luckier in love than he has been in previous roles. But still, I never really fell for this tale of second chances. The Best of Me follows estranged high school sweethearts Amanda (Michelle Monaghan) and Dawson (Marsden) as they reconnect after the death of a mutual friend. Set partially during their high school days and partially in the present, The Best of Me has a genuinely surprising third act, but I didn’t root for the unhappily married Amanda and the stuck-in-the-past Dawson to reconnect.
3. Safe Haven
Of all the movies on this list, Safe Haven might have the most shockingly silly ending. I definitely recommend watching with a friend — when the credits rolled, I was dying to discuss it with someone. Katie (Julianne Hough) leaves an abusive marriage and hides from her dangerous husband in Southport, North Carolina, where she comes to care for handsome widower Alex (Josh Duhamel) and his daughter. With the help of Alex and her mysterious neighbor Jo (Cobie Smulders), Katie builds a new life for herself… but her homicidal husband isn’t far behind.
4. The Lucky One
The Lucky One has an inherently creepy premise not even Zac Efron and Taylor Schilling’s chemistry can make me overlook. Logan (Efron), a marine in Iraq, finds a picture of a young woman. Moments later, his comrades around him are suddenly killed. After his brush with death, Logan comes to view the woman in the photo as his lucky charm, and when he returns home, he sets out on a mission to find her.
Efron’s angsty, violin-playing, ridiculously handsome marine is clearly dealing with PTSD, so I pitied him despite finding his obsession with Beth (Taylor Schilling) a little off. Beth isn’t the idealized savior Logan imagines—she’s a flawed human with dreams and trauma of her own, and for much of the movie, Logan gets close to her under false pretenses. But, this being a Nicholas Sparks movie, the unhealthy impetus for their relationship doesn’t matter nearly as much as it should.
5. Dear John
Dear John has Channing Tatum in it, which was all I needed to know to watch it. Tatum plays John, a staff sergeant who at the opening of the film is severely injured during combat in Afghanistan. The movie then flashes back to 2001: John, enjoying his leave in Charleston, South Carolina, saves a purse from floating off in the ocean. The purse belongs to Savannah (Amanda Seyfried), who strikes up a serious relationship with John that is maintained via letter writing. After September 11th, John reenlists, and their relationship is tested like never before.
Dear John has one huge thing going for it (CHANNING), but I never cared as much about Savannah and John’s love as I wanted to, and I felt like the movie didn’t approach the moral gray areas that arise in Savannah’s life—and in most real people’s lives—with sufficient thought. Fans of the book will likely be even more perturbed by the movie’s ending, which differs substantially from the novel.
6. Message in a Bottle
Nicholas Sparks stories are as much about mortality as they are about love, so you've got to expect a little bit of tragedy going in. But Message in a Bottle is such a ludicrously tragic tale that I felt it crossed over from sad to almost silly. The plot follows heartbroken ship builder Garrett (Kevin Costner) and Theresa (Robin Wright). Theresa, a researcher for a Chicago newspaper, finds a message in a bottle written to a woman called “Catherine.” Through a predictable and frustrating series of events, the letter is published in the paper, and Theresa tracks down Garrett to learn the heartbreaking truth about his relationship to Catherine. Of course, the two fall in love along the way—but will Garrett ever be able to fully move on from Catherine?
7. Nights in Rodanthe
Nights in Rodanthe, like every other movie on this list, is as much an advertisement for North Carolina as it is a story about the power of love. Adrienne (Diane Lane) is faced with the difficult decision of whether or not to take back her husband Jack (Christopher Meloni) after he has an affair. She heads to her friend’s bed and breakfast for the weekend to think it over, and, as a hurricane pummels the coast, develops a deep bond with the bed and breakfast’s sole guest, troubled surgeon Paul (Richard Gere). The two encourage each other to be the best they can be, and to heal rifts in their respective pasts. I came to care for the charismatic characters of Nights in Rodanthe, but never as much as I cared about the gorgeous North Carolina beach house in which it was set.
8. The Last Song
Before her parents divorced, Ronnie (Miley Cyrus) was a piano prodigy with a guaranteed spot at Juilliard. But since her dad left, she hasn’t played. So when Ronnie’s mother ships her off to visit her dad on the beaches of North Carolina, Ronnie is less than thrilled. But with the love of a hunky sea turtle rescuer—not the most ridiculous occupation on this list, by the way—she finds a way to open up again. The Last Song is generally underwhelming, but co-stars Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth have incredible chemistry; in fact, they’ve been romantically involved in real life since meeting on The Last Song set. This movie boasts a particularly sad ending, even by Sparks standards, so don't say I didn't warn you.
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9. The Longest Ride
Luke (Scott Eastwood) is a professional bull rider who can’t accept that his career is over, despite numerous injuries. Sophia (Britt Robertson) is an artist with her eye on New York. Despite their burgeoning love for each other, Luke and Sophia are pulled apart by their conflicting priorities — but a chance meeting with an elderly art collector will change the way they look at love, and each other, forever.
I was surprised by how much I enjoyed The Longest Ride: the trailer made me think it would be more about bull riding than anything else, but instead this movie is an intergenerational love story that contemplates the compromises inherent even in the most loving relationships. It also tackles some complex themes not seen in other Sparks films, such as Jewish identity and the impact war and trauma can have on relationships.
10. A Walk to Remember
If you haven’t seen A Walk to Remember yet, then really, where have you been the last 16 years? A Walk to Remember was the movie that first introduced me to Nicholas Sparks, and it still makes me emotional no matter how many times I watch Landon (Shane West) and Jamie (Mandy Moore) fall in love. Landon is a bad boy with an estranged father and a chip on his shoulder; Jamie is the wallflower daughter of a preacher. They shouldn’t fall for each other—but of course, they do. I won’t spoil the ending (although again, if you don’t know what happens in A Walk to Remember, WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN THE LAST 15 YEARS?) but it’s devastating and cheesy all at the same time. This Sparks classic has truly withstood the test of time.
11. The Notebook
The Notebook is another Sparks movie that’s pretty ubiquitous–even if you haven’t seen it, you’d probably at least recognize the iconic image of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams embracing in the rain. A story-within-a-story, the movie follows the tempestuous romance between Allie (Rachel McAdams) and Noah (Ryan Gosling), as told by an elderly man in a nursing home to another patient. Gosling and McAdams have undeniable chemistry, and had a real-life relationship that mirrored the volatile bond between their characters–they reportedly hated each other on set, but began a relationship after filming that lasted for years. Their real-life attraction is evident in The Notebook, and helps make this classic more sexy than sappy. Watch it this weekend and remember why, fourteen years later, "I wrote you every day for a year!" remains synonymous with enduring passion.
Featured still from "The Notebook" via New Line Cinema
This story was originally published on August 24th, 2017.