Every Nicholas Sparks Adaptation, Ranked

Movies Lists Nicholas Sparks
Every Nicholas Sparks Adaptation, Ranked

Nicholas Sparks is one of the most famous romance authors of the 21st century—just a regular guy who made a business out of falling in love. The films which accompany his writing are equally well-known; a blur of love and loss and cancer and car crashes and candlelit dinners. I thought watching every Nicholas Sparks adaptation would be a breeze, but I was sorely mistaken. As I was watching The Choice, I was lulled into a kind of hypnosis. So much so, that it was only after it was finished and I went downstairs to grab a drink that I realized my menstrual cup had been boiling and subsequently melted to the bottom of my pan. I sent an all-caps text to my friend explaining the frustration specific to breaking something at the hands of master manipulator, Nicholas Sparks, and then forlornly trudged upstairs to hit play on The Notebook. Another time, my close friends had a minor falling out while I was midway through Nights in Rodanthe. Unfortunately I was on a deadline, so I split my attention between real life interpersonal drama and Richard Gere and Diane Lane’s endless (endless) wanderings along the beach. What I’m trying to say is that Sparks’ cinematic output is significant quantity-wise but fairly same-y quality-wise, so binging his adaptations may make your reality feel like it’s contorting around a single marathon story. First the films merged together, then I merged into the films. 

Here is our ranking of every cinematic Nicholas Sparks adaptation:

11. The Best of Me

In embarking upon this Sparks movie marathon, I realized that there are two kinds of Sparks dramas: the ones that feature an untimely death but build towards a happy ending for the main couple and the ones that feature an untimely death that spells tragedy for the main couple. The Best of Me is maybe the most extreme version of the latter; Amanda (Liane Liberato) and Dawson (Luke Bracey) are high school sweethearts torn apart when he is sent to prison for accidentally killing his cousin. When they reunite later in life the spark is still there, but before they can truly commit Dawson (now James Marsden) is shot by his abusive father and then saves Amanda’s (now Michelle Monaghan) son by donating his heart for the son’s ensuing heart transplant.

If you think this sounds like a crazy plot, you’re right! But if you think this might make for an exciting film, you’re actually wrong. Besides inadvertently pioneering the “who do you think gave you the [insert vital organ]?” meme format, The Best of Me mostly plays out quietly in gardens. Indeed gardens and growth are so prominent, it could be generously considered a visual motif. Unfortunately, so much of The Best of Me plays out like a first draft, gesturing towards a cohesive film; all of it—including the compatibility of the leads—feel like placeholders for the real thing.

10. The Longest Ride

Later in his career, Sparks seems intent to play with the structure of his tried-and-true formula. This largely manifests in the weaving together of two separate timelines, definitively proving that no matter the era, love is eternal and consistent. I can’t blame him for such experimentation but I can argue that such a choice actually has an adverse effect. Ira (Jack Huston, then Alan Alda) and Ruth (Oona Chaplin) overcome the war, anti-semitism and infertility to sustain a lasting marriage. Conversely, Luke (Scott Eastwood) and Sophia (Britt Robertson) can barely overcome her art gallery internship and his passion for bull-riding to even start a relationship. Once again it feels like Sparks had a preoccupation with the ideas of perseverance and passion, but is backed into a confusing plot. Furthermore, it’s worth considering whether The Longest Ride is definitive proof that Sparks has a reverence for the ‘40s and ‘50s but has no perception of the trials plaguing contemporary couples.

9. The Lucky One

I know what you’re thinking: Thank goodness we have Nicholas Sparks’ perspective on the post-9/11 geopolitical landscape committed to the big screen. This film opens with Zac Efron as Logan weighed down by camouflage gear and storming an Iraqi home. It is a bizarrely aggressive opening. From there the plot follows an unusually (or usually for Sparks) stilted arc. Our protagonist swiftly returns home, leaves his sister’s and then crosses the country to pursue the woman whose photo has proved a good luck charm throughout his tour. From there, the tension between Logan and Beth (Taylor Schilling) ratchets up at a barely discernible speed. Then in the last 20 minutes, Beth is devastated when she finds out that Logan has a picture of her (a lackluster reveal that proves the stakes to be a largely weightless construction). They then break up, before getting back together after Beth’s ex-husband (Jay R. Ferguson) drowns while trying to save their son (Riley Thomas Stewart). Romantic dramas like these work best when the tension climbs steadily, a gentle arc culminating in some kind of union rather than, like here, spiking in random places before dwindling out completely.

8. Nights in Rodanthe 

In Nights in Rodanthe, Paul (Richard Gere) and Adrienne (Diane Lane) are middle-aged divorcees who collide during his beachside getaway. I don’t want to invoke the memory of a 2023 meme, but there is no way to define Adrienne’s job besides “beach;” she manages her friend’s seaside inn, she meanders across sandy coastlines, she looks across the horizon from the aforementioned inn, she tells guests about the wild horses that once traversed the beach. 

Nights in Rodanthe is undermined by the fact that they never manage to recover from the overwhelming tragedy that kicks off the film’s final act. All Sparks stories feature a tragedy, but mostly he manages to balance that with a tangible sense of hope, a promise that something will get better for the person recovering. But when Adrienne receives news of Paul’s death, it’s clear that her life—which kind of sucked before—now definitively sucks. And from there, Nights in Rodanthe has nothing to do but limp to the finish line.

7. The Choice

Were I to live in a Nicholas Sparks’ story I would just chill out and enjoy the picturesque small town with perfect weather, serene nature and a perpetual county fair. But his characters are committed to the constant discomfort of longing, none more so than Gabby (Teresa Palmer) and Travis (Benjamin Walker). These two are neighbors whose instant connection masquerades as disdain, but eventually his role as the local vet forces them into spending quality time together. 

Like The Notebook, The Choice pushes the central couple together in the first act, using the remaining runtime to place obstacles in their way. In theory this is a welcome decision, offering the audience a story deliberately preoccupied with the complicated process of staying together, rather than getting together. In execution, The Choice feels like two underdeveloped stories squeezed together. The Choice does win my own independent award of “Craziest Wig” for one Maggie Grace, starring as Travis’ knowing sister, strutting into every scene with her hairline floating atop her head.

6. Message in a Bottle

A lesser-known trope of Sparks’ is the construction of something handmade, often some form of carpentry that develops over the slow-burn plot. Perhaps it’s a nod to the kind of rural American craftsmanship that harkens to times gone by, it’s undoubtedly a haphazard visual metaphor highlighting the way love must be carved out and nurtured. For the purposes of this list it’s also a useful way of distinguishing between each movie; there’s the one where they make the little wooden box (Nights in Rodanthe), there’s the one where they make the stained glass window (The Last Song), and there’s the one where Kevin Costner’s Garrett is dedicated to restoring old boats (this one).

Message in a Bottle is the first Sparks’ adaptation, and you can tell! The characters are underdeveloped (even by this metric) and the film is unforgivably long. But its first-draft shabbiness also adds its more charming elements, including an array of secondary characters with specific voices—none more so than Robbie Coltrane as Theresa’s (Robin Wright) charming if abrasive editor.

5. Safe Haven

This is the Nicholas Sparks adaptation I have (unfortunately) seen the most. Safe Haven is a slippery, odd little gem in Sparks’ cinematic crown; part masterfully structured fever dream, part nonsense that makes no sense. It is the only one of his stories that features a final act reveal that boasts unheralded supernatural elements. 

Julianne Hough is Katie and while she is on the run from her abusive husband (David Lyons), she stumbles upon a quiet beach town with a new disguise (bleach-blonde hair). It all feels like if Gone Girl were made for the Disney Channel, but then with the discovery that her neighbor is actually a ghost, you realize Safe Haven is more like The Sixth Sense for the Disney Channel. Is that better? I don’t know, but you have to respect the audaciousness of such a conceit.

4. The Last Song

Technically Sparks’ decision to write The Last Song is the first domino in a zig-zagging pattern that culminates in Miley Cyrus’ Grammy win for her hit single “Flowers,” so perhaps we should be grateful for this inclusion in his film canon. This is one of the more positive, uplifting inclusions, ending on a lingering, optimistic note. Plus Ronnie’s (Miley Cyrus) ripped jeans, tousled hair and armful of silver bangles are all fun aesthetic nods to the indie sleaze looks of the early 2010s (and their knock-offs).

But once again, the event separating our couple and ushering in that final act is so nonsensical that it proves these films are built atop flimsy foundations. Ronnie and Will (Liam Hemsworth) break up when she learns that his friend was the one to set fire to the local church and not her father (Greg Kinnear, a welcome and warm presence). For stories that are predicated on true love being an unstoppable force, it is always readily stopped (or at least paused) by the slightest, strangest inconvenience. But in the end they reunite, hurtling off to New York, empowered by a summer of reconnecting with their past. 

3. A Walk to Remember

While it isn’t technically the first Sparks adaptation, A Walk to Remember paved the way for the films following after it proved to be an unmitigated box office success (making four-and-a-half times its budget). In many ways it also solidified the Sparks-ian tropes which viewers would grow so familiar with: good girl, bad boy, small-town setting, peaceful life interrupted by personal tragedy. But it also feels markedly separate from the next decade-and-a-half of films, specifically in its Christian framework. At least part of the romance between Landon (Shane West) and Jamie (a baby-voiced Mandy Moore) is his willingness to convert to Christianity and her willingness to take a chance on a sinful non-believer. Still, Jamie is one of the more interesting of the author’s protagonists and as such her death carries real dramatic weight. All of this makes for one of the more complete final acts in Sparks’ catalog. 

2. Dear John

If you thought The Lucky One romanticized the military industrial complex, Dear John reaches new levels in its aim to valorize American imperialism. The only real interruption to John (Channing Tatum) and Savannah’s (Amanda Seyfried) decades-spanning love is the draw of military re-enlistment after 9/11. “I just woke up and there’s buildings falling,” John explains in the film’s climactic argument. “Can you just tell me what you want me to do?” All of this gestures towards his character’s eerily conservative politics that go otherwise completely unacknowledged. Sparks is an expert at appealing to his white, Christian base and couching it all in the acceptable ideals of tradition, duty and loyalty—largely ignoring the ways in which such beliefs build to tragic conclusions.

But Dear John has what similar Nicholas Sparks’ outings do not: two great romantic leads with actual (though not overwhelming) chemistry. Seyfried is wonderfully believable as the stereotypical good girl, whose goodness calcifies, late in life, glazing over into something murkier. Tatum is a natural movie star, both gruff and accessible. While their sex scene is an underwhelming, darkly lit affair (in a barn, in the middle of her parent’s garden party…OK!) director Lasse Hallström makes use of both leads’ movie-star looks in almost every scene, making for a pretty easy watch.

1. The Notebook 

The Notebook is apparently based on the story of Nicholas Sparks’ ex-wife’s grandparents, and perhaps this level of closeness and realness is why the film has transcended its contemporaries, uniquely cementing itself in the culture. It follows the traditional Sparks-ian non-specific characters and plot. Allie is a rich Southern belle and Noah is a chiseled working-class guy, and after a fateful night at the county fair, they are thrust together. The Notebook overcomes such unimaginative trappings through its two lead performers; Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams are steady hands, perennially interesting on screen with the right generosity to allow for sizzling chemistry regardless of their scene partner. The Notebook is number one on the list almost by default. It’s shot with some flair (particularly the sex scenes) and the actors are able to convey a lot through limited dialogue and the heavy-handed tropes (a kiss in the rain, a love triangle). It’s not exactly good, but it’s certainly not bad—in the end, that’s enough to shoot it straight to the top of the Sparks adaptation list.

London-based film writer Anna McKibbin loves digging into classic film stars and movie musicals. Find her on Twitter to see what she is currently obsessed with.

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