Poking fun at Nicholas Sparks movies and their perceived lack of originality used to be job rooted entirely in the author’s apparent love for killing off his characters with startling regularity. It wasn’t a question of if someone would die, but when. The majority of the time, Sparks reveled in killing off one-half of some lovestruck couple who had spent the rest of his story (book, movie) struggling to establish their love together. Sparks loved to bring people together, but man, did he love ripping them apart (often thanks to cancer and car crashes, with a generous mudslide thrown in for good measure!).
But although Sparks’ kill count is the most obvious hallmark of his material, it’s not the only one. You can spot a Sparks-inspired feature from a mile away, thanks to the bestselling author’s repeated use of things like wholly unearned twists (once upon a time, all those deaths were the twists, eventually forcing Sparks to go supernatural with the damn thing and inserting a goddamn ghost into at least one of his stories), southern settings (especially North Carolina), and a reverence for written letters that can’t explain away why Sparks doesn’t seem to understand the basic mechanics of epistolary communication. Basically, Sparks’ movies all look and feel the same – and always have – but with his most recent adaptation, The Longest Ride, it finally appears that Sparks run out of ideas and is now cribbing from himself.
Based on his 2013 novel of the same name (the book is Sparks’ seventeenth romance novel, and the tenth to be made into a film), The Longest Ride blends together two stories that will feel very familiar to anyone who has even a basic awareness of the kinds of stories he likes to tell. Like The Notebook, arguably the best and most popular film based on a Sparks story, The Longest Ride chronicles a pair of love stories to give the audience a fuller look at the necessities and demands of love. Unlike The Notebook, those two stories don’t have a particularly meaningful link between them. It’s as if Sparks was writing two entirely different novels and then, through a hilarious pratfall, was carrying both manuscripts (in separate hands, but we don’t know, we weren’t there) and then slipped, tripped, and fell, pages raining down around him.
Those pages then fell into one manuscript and Sparks, being the visionary he is, thought, eh, fuck it.
The Longest Ride is about two love stories: art student Sophia (Britt Robertson) and bull rider Luke (Scott Eastwood), but also shy shop boy Ira (Alan Alda as an older man, Jack Huston as his younger version) and newbie immigrant Ruth (Oona Chaplin). Sophia and Luke exist in the present day, where the pair attempt to ride out a blossoming relationship that is threatened by Sophia’s imminent move to New York City and Luke’s insistence on keeping up with a career that may literally kill him. On their first date, Luke spots a car that has gone off the side of the road, and rescues Ira (Alda) from the wreckage before it explodes. These are how connections are made in Sparksland now.
The story then flips between Sophia and Luke’s relatively flaccid relationship (Sophia seems boring, Luke seems like an idiot) and Ira sharing tales of his own love story with a slack-jawed Sophia, who takes up visiting him for apparent fun. One of the strangest things about The Longest Ride is that the majority of its trailers and commercials refuse to pay any attention to the Levinsons’ storyline. During this week, the film’s week of release, I’ve yet to see a single commercial that includes anything beyond Sophia and Luke’s plot (and, yes, I watch a lot of TV), which makes zero sense, because The Longest Ride should have been marketed as a down-scale take on The Notebook for people who love The Notebook.
It’s even more striking that Sparks’ lack of creativity is on display in The Longest Ride, which does manage to include some fresh material (the bull-riding community, an entire subplot about modern art, an interest in the Jewish community in Greensboro, North Carolina), shoehorned in alongside entire scenes that appear to have been yanked wholesale from cut scenes from The Notebook. (It’s also notable that a number of commercials for the film have played up the apparent sexiness of the Sophia and Luke pairing, as if this was new territory for Sparks – well, it would be, if the film was actually sexy in the slightest, so maybe Sparks can work with that idea next.) If Sparks’ stories are to be believed, the only activity for WWII era teens in love was to go to the beach and swing each other along the shorelines. Entire patches of the Ira/Ruth storyline look so breathlessly like they’ve been pulled from The Notebook that it’s laughable, and then just galling. (Sophia and Luke’s love story, meanwhile, is of the same ranks as The Last Song and The Best of Me, while also being damningly boring and uninspired.)
The films moves and operates like Sparks fan fiction, crafted from discarded bits (war-torn romance, forbidden love, danger, a lot of rain) and retrofitted into a Sparkenstein’s monster of unoriginality. Ira tells us, “love requires sacrifice,” but what it really requires is originality. Sparks has come up short.