Zac Efron on the set of The Lucky One.
“Well,” I told the friend who had brought this movie to my attention. “I guess that’s one Zac Efron movie I won’t be seeing, then.”
Stunned silence for a minute, and then: “But… I thought we’d probably go and see it together.”
A grimace. ’Cause… see a Nicholas-Sparks-book movie? Voluntarily? And pay for the privilege? Er… no.
“But… why?” she demanded, perplexed.
I sighed, resigned to a bout of rigorous questioning as to what could possibly be wrong with me. Because this reminded me all too forcibly of a time a few years back when the Richard Gere/Diane Lane lovefest that was Nights in Rodanthe had all the girls talking, and texting:
"Wanna go see Nights in Rodanthe?"
"Nights in Rodanthe tonight?"
"Shall we go and see Nights in Rodanthe?"
Well, no, actually, we shan’t, was my repeated rebuff to such importunities. Oh, by all means, take yourselves along, I abjured. Enjoy the majesty of the North Carolina coastline, the heart stopping splendor of a bunch of horses galloping on a beach, the thrill of the two ageing leads playing the same roles they’ve been playing for years and finding love... at last... again...
But I didn’t want to go and see it, 'cause I had the weirdest premonition that someone was going to die.
Why did I fear this? I mean, it’s not like it was a movie starring a bunch of nubile (or, indeed, buff) stars from various hit teen shows, all staring vacantly out from a black poster, the title in white, or red (or white and red), and in a particularly menacing font. It was clearly not a slasher flick, or any kind of twist-in-the-plot thriller (like the last film in which those two had starred together, Unfaithful). It was a mature-people romance in what has become a bit of a specialty for them both, and the trailer left us in no doubt that the two stars hit it off, and then enthusiastically hit it, in dutifully predictable style.
So what was wrong with this picture? Why did I not want to see it? I'm a girl, aren't I, with all a girl's need to watch pretty people get together in unlikely fashion, set to a swelling orchestral score and amid sweeping vistas of spectacular real estate? Why was I so afraid, then, that the course of that true love would not run at all satisfactorily smooth?
Well, I'll tell you. It's because I had heard Nights in Rodanthe described in an advertisement as an “Inspirational Love Story”. And, as we all must surely know by now, “inspirational” is code for “at least one of them dies.”
I’ve fallen for it again and again, throughout the course of my romantic movie-going life. I'd catch a preview or hear about the latest chick-flick, a girlfriend and I would go, and then I'd end up in entirely unanticipated tears and often filled with an impotent rage as the credits rolled. Sure, a few movies have the grace to warn us of what is going to happen, like Ghost, and Dying Young, but others... oh, those others. Know their names! City of Angels. Up Close and Personal. Untamed Heart, Titanic, Autumn in New York, Message in a Bottle, Moulin Rouge, A Walk to Remember, The Notebook, William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet...
Well, okay, I knew about the dying in Romeo and Juliet. Unlike (quick sidebar) the group of teenage girls I followed out of the movie theatre the first time I saw it. One of them (the one wearing the midriff-baring Elmo T-shirt -- remember, this was the late 90’s) lamented to the others (at least one of whom was wearing a teddy bear backpack): “That was so good... but why did they have to die?” I could only laugh as her friends agreed in hearty disapproval of that needlessly tragic resolution.
Speaking of needlessly tragic resolutions, there was another reason for my very rational fears about the fates of Gere and/or Lane in Nights in Rodanthe: it's also based on a novel by the aforementioned Nicholas Sparks. The Nicholas Sparks who ruthlessly committed other murders in three of the movies with which I had been previously bedeviled: Message in a Bottle, A Walk to Remember and The Notebook.
A Walk to Remember is a different thing entirely. That I saw five times at the theater, promptly ran out to buy the book, and then rushed to get it on DVD as soon as it was released. It's a movie I'll happily watch upon any occasion, for the I-don't-know-how-many-ieth time, enjoying the sweet, chaste love story of Jamie (Mandy Moore) and Landon (Shane West), and puzzling over the seemingly patchwork countenance of Daryl Hannah (who plays Landon's Mom). Still, the "someone dies" factor continues to irk me more than a little, and it was in fact following my very first viewing of this teen love story that I began to crack the code. “An Inspirational Love Story!” the movie poster had proclaimed. And then, at the end, Jamie died. Ergo, “inspirational” = “death”.
By the time The Notebook came out, I was pretty sure of what I was gonna be dealing with; and, as it happens, I despised it pretty much immediately. I hate almost any kind of flashback film, and while well-acted and beautifully shot, this one left me particularly unmoved. When they died in the end, it actually came as a blessed relief. (I know that's not a popular opinion. So many people rhapsodize about The Damn Notebook, that I feel like Seinfeld's Elaine when dealing with fans of the equally abhorrent English Friggin' Patient. How could I not love that movie? "How about, it sucked?")
The weird thing about Nicholas Sparks novels is how truly unremarkable they are on the page, and yet get turned into these grand, sweeping, classic-in-the-making romantic movies that are on many a woman's Must See list. He's like the anti-Michael Crichton. I have read several of Sparks's books now, including a couple of the movied ones -- they are well up there on the abandoned-at-airports scale, second only to the works of Dan Brown -- and yet I don't recall a single passage of dialogue from any of them, or remember being impressed by even one well-turned phrase.
I do remember all the dying, though. Sparks clearly apires to be a writer of Literature (either that, or he’s just a psychopath living out serial killer fantasies on the page), and Literature almost always abhors a happy ending.
From modern best-sellers like Love Story and, more recently, P.S. I Love You, to true classics of the soul-crushing, "Why did they have to die?" genre such as Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein, (Damn you, English!), Anna Karenina and Dr. Zhivago (Damn you, Russians!), and Camille and Dangerous Liaisons (Damn you, French!), it seems very difficult for a romantic novel to be acclaimed and popular and be made into a movie and have a happy ending.
At times, of course, the ending can still be unhappy and yet allow its protagonists to live. Sometimes a story is made "inspirational” not by death, but by duty. One or other of our star-crossed lovers needs to choose between love and loyalty, and loyalty -- to our eternal chagrin -- wins. Sparks has dabbled in this kind of ending too, with Dear John and the like (okay, I’ll admit to seeing that particular Sparks movie willingly, but in my defense, it does star Channing Tatum), and far more successful examples include Casablanca, The Bridges of Madison County, The Horse Whisperer, Spanglish, Shakespeare in Love and The Prince of Tides, to name only a few of the most annoyingly self-righteous.
That said, I actually kind of love Spanglish. And, as I already confessed (don’t judge me), A Walk to Remember is a definite favorite. But why is it that some of these "inspirational love stories" are okay by me, while others have so maddened me with fury that I never wish to see them again? What is it about me that makes A Walk to Remember one of my Top 10 (aside from the fact that I’m a sucker for Mandy Moore), and puts Titanic and Moulin Rouge easily in the top twenty, but leaves other One of Them Dies movies in my never-to-be-sufficiently-cursed Movies of Doom?
Could it be the way in which some of these movies’ heroes and heroines die? In some, it's brave, and bold and even kind of beautiful. In others, it's just kind of blah.
The cancer suffered by Jamie, and Winona Ryder in Autumn in New York, and Ali McGraw in Love Story is acceptable. The consumption (or some other disease befitting French courtesans of another century) contracted by Camille and Satine from Moulin Rouge passes muster as well. In Dangerous Liaisons (and, by extension, Cruel Intentions), it's a duel over a lady's honor -- and, in the former, the woman in an actual decline -- that parts the ill-fated lovers. In Titanic, it's a freaking iceberg! (And an apparently too-small door.)
Watch out, you idiot!
And I have to wonder: is true love defined by the the Jacks and the Roses, the Christians and Satines, or is it in the Harrys and the Sallys, the Kates and Leopolds? For every happy Hollywood ending, every Pretty Woman, or The Lake House, or You've Got Mail, there's a West Side Story, an Up Close and Personal, and a -- shudder -- Notebook.
I must admit, there is something so timeless, and so comforting, about a true-love-tragic-tale. Perhaps because the epic love in those tales can never die, can never become mundane, or lost, or taken for granted, like those in movies such as Something to Talk About, or The Breakup, or every Edward Burns movie ever (for some reason) made.
So I probably will, when it comes down to it, see Nights in Rodanthe one day. And I’ll see the Zac Efron-blessed The Lucky One for sure, despite all my protesting to the contrary. And when they end in tears, as they surely will, I’ll see it coming and not be consumed by a how-dare-they hissy-fit. After all, I suppose sometimes it’s better to enjoy the forever frozen-in-time love displayed in films like A Walk to Remember, Moulin Rouge and Titanic and to appreciate their tragically-ever-afters for what they are -- a stark, sometimes much needed contrast to the equally unlikely happily-ever-afters.
Though I still think the Kevin Costner guy in Message in a Bottle should never have gone out in that deathtrap yacht of his. Dude: airplanes. Look ’em up.
-- Rachel Hyland