‘Notebook’ to ‘The Choice’: How Nicholas Sparks makes sparks fly

July 22, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley chats with Nicholas Sparks (Jason Fraley)

WASHINGTON — Nicholas Sparks.

The name alone elicits an intensely emotional response that ranges from sappy to endearing, depending on your threshold for the sentimental.

Sparks’ signature brand of romantic weepies carries all the melodrama of Douglas Sirk but without the singular directorial vision. Numerous directors have adapted Sparks’ best-selling novels for the screen — some to box office success, others to critical scorn.

But hit or miss, you know what you’re getting with a Nicholas Sparks movie, his name as synonymous with the romance genre as Stephen King is with horror, having released 11 book-to-film adaptations including “The Choice,” which hits theaters Friday.

“Even I don’t know why so many films have gotten made. … I have the second most. It’s Stephen King and me … They’re different enough that Hollywood says there’s room in our year for a film like this, there’s room in our marketing campaign to try to capture this particular audience. … I’ve just been fortunate enough to catch that wave, and I’ve been riding it for a long, long time,” Sparks tells WTOP.

You’ll notice that “The Choice” is the first labeled “A Nicholas Sparks Production,” thanks to his newly-formed production company giving Sparks greater control over what hits the screen.

“I’ve written the script for various films, or I’ve served as a producer for various films. (But this) was exciting because I was able to be more involved in other elements of the film: where it was filmed or the budget or the music, all of these things I didn’t have much exposure to in the past. That was really a lot of fun to be able to do, because the movie can come out exactly like I wanted it to come out.”

“The Choice” follows Travis (Ben Walker) and Gabby (Teresa Palmer), who meet as neighbors in a small coastal town and wind up in a relationship that is tested by life’s choices, hence the title.

“Life isn’t as predictable as we all would like it to be. In reality, we all have choices to make. What happens if you would have chosen somebody else to marry? What happens if you had chosen a different job, or chosen to uproot from wherever you are and move across the country and start all over? Choices. The choices we make not only reflect the people we are but the lives that we lead.”

Sparks says the chemistry between Walker and Palmer is vital to the movie.

“You hope for good chemistry. It’s really hard to know for sure whether you get it until you actually begin filming, and we’re just fortunate that as soon as these two get together, the sparks fly, pardon the pun. … The viewer can’t be helped but drawn into the story,” Sparks says.

But beyond the cast and the themes, Sparks knows his true audience appeal.

“Look, it’s a Nicholas Sparks film. They’re going to be kissing in the rain and all that good stuff, and it’s a great Valentine’s movie. … It’s the closest thing to ‘The Notebook’ since ‘The Notebook,'” he says.

That’s high praise considering “The Notebook” (2004) is Sparks’ most popular movie, not to mention his best reviewed among both the critics (52 percent Rotten Tomatoes) and public (7.9 IMDB).

Why does that one stand out from the rest?

“Not only did Nick Cassavetes the director (and son of indie filmmaking legend John Cassavetes) do a wonderful job, but Ryan (Gosling) and Rachel (McAdams) and James (Garner) and Gena (Rowlands). There was just something about that film that just caught the public’s imagination,” Sparks says.

The pop-culture phenomenon was not immediate. His debut novel, “The Notebook” spent over a year on The New York Times best-seller list, but it never hit the Top 3. Even the movie’s initial box office was modest for Hollywood standards, grossing $81 million domestically and $115 million worldwide.

“That’s a lot of money, but it’s not ‘Star Wars’ by any stretch. Shoot, it’s not even ‘Titanic.’ But then what happened was it came out on DVD and it was like the No. 1 seller for Warner Brothers for I think seven straight years. Like every week, it was No. 1. It had this incredibly long run on DVD. I’m like, OK, I’ll take it. And then of course it’s on every channel every other week,” Sparks laughs.

The one film that might rival “The Notebook” for consistent TV airings is “A Walk to Remember” (2002), resonating with Millennials the same way that “Love Story” (1970) did for Baby Boomers.

“They have their collection of movies that you gotta watch: ‘Perks of Being a Wallflower’ or ‘The Notebook’ or ‘A Walk to Remember’ … It just happens to be in the rotation of those movies that girls starting in middle school really like to watch. … The message is strong for teenage girls. You don’t have to change who you are to get a guy. You just be who you are … and do the right thing.”

The film helped establish Mandy Moore as a star, just like “The Notebook” catapulted Gosling and McAdams to respective Oscar nominations for films like “Half Nelson” (2006) and “Spotlight” (2015).

“I gave them a shot. They maximized their shot. They did such a great job, and I would certainly say that I had no role whatsoever in the way they brought those characters to life. … It’s exciting to watch not only Ryan and Rachel, but how about Liam Hemsworth in ‘The Last Song’ or you watch Taylor Schilling opposite Zac Efron in ‘The Lucky One.’ … There have been lots of actors that hardly anybody knew before, then they were in these films and they get more well known,” Sparks says.

Ironically, these early film favorites aren’t necessarily Sparks’ favorites novels.

“A lot of people think of me and they think of ‘The Notebook’ primarily because of the film. … Is it my favorite (book)? I mean, I’m certainly incredibly proud that I wrote ‘The Notebook.’ I’m very fond of that story. It did launch my career. Is it the one that I consider to be the most well-written? No.”

Sparks prefers his more recent works from “The Longest Ride” to “Safe Haven.”

“I think the writing has improved. I think the stories are more complex. The characters are more complex. But that’s my opinion. It doesn’t mean that it’s the one that anyone else likes the best.”

Which brings us to his latest novel, “See Me,” which was published last October and debuted at No. 1 on The New York Times best-seller list. It was his 13th novel to achieve that feat, and considering his aforementioned comparison to King, Sparks is now dipping his toe in romantic thriller waters.

“I try to write novels that are different than anything I’ve done before. … You’ve got Colin and Maria, she’s my first Hispanic character that I’ve ever created. … He’s had some trouble with the law in the past. She’s an attorney. They’re very different. Opposites attract. Can they make it?”

We all know the answer.

“Well, it’s Nicholas Sparks, of course they’re going to give it a whirl.”

July 22, 2024 | WTOP's Jason Fraley previews 'The Choice' with Nicholas Sparks (Jason Fraley)
Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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