Defending Nicholas Sparks

Author taps into hunger for traditional romance

Few cultural punching bags take as much of a pounding as author Nicholas Sparks, particularly for movies adapted from his books.

The writer of such bestsellers as “The Notebook,” “A Walk to Remember” and “The Longest Ride” is often mocked in the media. Why? He hits the same themes over and over. He’s too positive. And why does faith have to play such a big role in so many of his stories?

His stories translate easily to the big screen for good reason.

Sparks’ latest novel, “See Me,” is out Tuesday. Once more, the story looks at unlikely lovers — one a former inmate trying to resurrect his life and the other a seemingly perfect lawyer — who are thrust together by fate. Expect it, too, to yield a major motion picture at some point.

What’s missing is an acknowledgment of just what Sparks gets right with his romance yarns. His stories translate so easily to the big screen for good reason. The romantic comedy genre, often dismissively called “rom-coms,” has all but disappeared as a box office force. Even more straightforward romances get little love at this point in the film cultural cycle. Yet a number of big screen romances made from Sparks’ novels have scored with audiences.

  • “Dear John” — $80 million
  • “The Notebook” — $81 million
  • “Safe Haven” — $71 million
  • “The Lucky One” — $60 million

A few Sparks adaptations have flopped, admittedly, proving he’s a far safer commercial bet on the printed page. All 18 of his novels have been New York Times bestsellers. His imagination has sparked enough hits across the media landscape to suggest he’s providing something in the marketplace not found elsewhere.

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Sparks’ protagonists speak to our better instincts. None of us is perfect, but who doesn’t want to be the kind of person who cares for a sick father or makes sacrifices for the benefit of others? Compare that to what is fed to us in other modern tales. Our culture teems with anti-heroes. Heck, the newest wave of superhero products may focus on villains. Witness the early 2016 release, “Suicide Squad.”

Sparks doesn’t write about Walter White or Tony Soprano types. His characters are aspirational despite the odds. And his love stories don’t flinch from sexuality, but rarely evoke the kind of R-rated clinches seen across media platforms. Parents won’t flinch as much as they might expect while watching a Sparks movie adaptation.

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And the Nicholas Sparks empire is about to grow. The author is connected to a new divorce comedy at ABC based loosely on his own personal life. His most celebrated film, “The Notebook,” may become a TV show on The CW. His Nicholas Sparks Productions shingle also is tied to a musical TV series and a dark family cable drama, among other projects.

Perhaps Sparks is a victim of his own success. He wouldn’t be the first artist to touch mainstream audiences to the dismay of cultural critics. Take Jay Leno, who earned far less raves for his “Tonight Show” reign than fellow talker David Letterman. Yet Leno routinely thumped Letterman where it counts — with viewers. His ratings dominance lasted right through his final months as “The Tonight Show” host.

Sparks must know the feeling. Some critics may be aghast at his enduring fame, but his readers simply want more stories from his prolific pen.

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