In The Notebook, an old man named Duke (James Garner) reads an old woman with Alzheimer’s (Gena Rowlands) a story about two young lovers in 1940. Noah (Ryan Gosling) sees Allie (Rachel McAdams) at a carnival and immediately falls for her. He aggressively courts her, and the two eventually get together. But Allie’s wealthy parents don’t approve of poor Noah, and eventually they are torn apart. Noah enlists in World War II, Allie becomes a nurse, and life seems to drag them further and further apart. But a surprise reunion nearly a decade later rekindles old passions. Will the two lovers get together before Duke finishes the story? And why is this particular tale seemingly so personal to him?
I have to admit: Despite having a great many problems with The Notebook on the whole, the movie works on a fundamental level, and I totally understand why it has resonated with audiences for so many years. I attribute that largely to the cast. Ryan Gosling, had he been born a few decades earlier, would have been an astonishing romantic leading man, radiating a solid, earthy magnetism even when silent – the same engine that powered Drive could have easily been turned to romance. The now-Oscar nominated Rachel McAdams, meanwhile, has a classy, old-fashioned charm, which has been used for good (Slings & Arrows) and evil (Mean Girls), that makes her ideally cast as the wealthy heartbreaker of The Notebook.
And The Notebook genuinely takes time to show its characters falling in love. The initial meeting is absolutely awful, a sexist, retrograde image of toxic masculinity, but once the two are actually dating, the film picks up considerably. It lets the characters breathe, talk, figure out what they like and what they care about. It lets them meet friends and family, see where the person came from, share their hopes and dreams. It’s the stuff modern romance often glosses over in montage, because it’s hard to get right, but The Notebook really does do a great job at setting the couple up and showing us where that passion comes from.
Meanwhile, director Nick Cassavetes rarely uses the typical shot/reverse-shot (basically, a picture of one character’s face talking, then a picture of the person they’re talking to responding, then back) that dominates so many dialogue scenes in film, instead keeping the camera (and, by default, us) out of the conversations. We can watch this dance play out, but Noah and Allie are a unit and we aren’t invited in. There are some clumsy directorial choices and some self-indulgent ones, but Cassavetes gets his two leads perfectly. Tellingly, their first break-up was filmed largely as shot/reverse-shot; we are penetrating that unit, separating them. A cloying voice-over tells us early on that they are inseparable, but the film has already shown us, has made us feel it. It’s a confirmation, not an explanation.
But Duke’s segments in that wrap-around and voiceover are just a bit too cloying for my taste. It’s a really powerful hook for a romance, and I think there’s a more emotionally complicated version of this story in which a wrap-around like this works, but there’s no room for Sparksian dialogue like “Do you think our love can make miracles?” in that version. The power, the epic sweep of time and sickness, lends the story the veneer of tragedy, of grand high emotional bombast, but it never feels like a natural extension of the story being told.
The wrap-around also steals valuable time from the actual love story, glossing over huge swaths of conflict. Lon, Allie’s late-film fiance, is mostly a nonstarter; I get the impression that we are supposed to see him as a serious romantic impediment, indeed, as the man Allie eventually ends up with (I can’t think of another reason to hide the name of James Garner’s old man for so long), but he has maybe three minutes of screen time in the movie. He’s perfectly charming, and James Marsden is well-cast in the role, but there’s just no conflict there. Which I actually get. If you make him a stuck-up rich boy or something, that’s a cliche that makes everything feel a bit too tidy; if you make him really likable, you divide your audience as to who they want to see end up with Allie. In their effort not to offend anyone, they accidentally made him… nothing.
Noah, on the other hand, is an old-fashioned romantic hero in the past and a self-styled ‘common man‘ in the present. In the 1940’s, Noah is a charming rake who won’t take no for an answer and won’t hesitate to emotionally blackmail Allie for a date, and while Allie says no, she really means yes, as she makes clear by encouraging him to keep pursuing her despite her rejections. Even just 12 years later, their early courtship would be the subject of hundreds of thinkpieces – and not without justification! Everything about the early scenes is deeply manipulative, and with no context whatsoever to try and soften the blow. Indeed, Noah falls in love with Allie before even speaking with her or seeing her do anything. It’s supposed to be love at first sight, but that’s a tough trope to pull off, and one that doesn’t particularly work here. It just feels kind of gross, at first.
I’ve talked a lot about why the genre has fallen into disrepair. We’ve talked about the lack of superstars taking these roles, and about the broadening of what romance is and the issues that causes the studio. But I haven’t talked much about the rise of the blockbuster, of the franchise. Studios don’t want to make a hundred million dollars when they can make a billion dollars, and they don’t want to make a billion dollars when they can launch a franchise that persistently makes a billion dollars, over and over and over again. Call it institutional laziness, call it smart marketing, it doesn’t matter – what it means is that romance, moreso than almost any other genre, is out of fashion. Where do you go after happily ever after? How do you come back from a tragic romantic death?
Except… well, there is a successful romantic franchise (two, actually, but I’ll come back to that in a later column). The Notebook helped kick it off: Nicholas Sparks adaptations. Before The Notebook, there were only two (Message in a Bottle and A Walk to Remember), and neither were particularly successful. After? There were two Sparks adaptations in 2010, one in 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015, and already one in 2016. They may not be able to bring characters back the way Marvel can, but they do have similar themes, locations, visual styles, stories. Audiences going to a Sparks film know exactly what to expect. They figured out how to franchise romance again, and that’s a language studios speak. The stars still matter to the financial success of the projects – it’s no surprise that the most successful adaptations have starred Ryan Gosling, Channing Tatum, Rachel McAdams, and Amanda Seyfried, up-and-comers whose stars only kept rising – but to the studios, it’s the dedicated audience that makes the films an easy sell.
Of course, romance novels are often written in series. While many more literary romances have been adapted, the books we typically think of as ‘romance novels’ are often written as trilogies or massive, sprawling series’ of interlocking love stories. While I’m not exactly begging for an adaptation of the Catherine Coulter or Nora Roberts books I used to read as a teenager, there is nevertheless a degree to which I’m surprised that the success of The Notebook didn’t create more of a demand for romance adaptations. The formula of a Nicholas Sparks novel is simple and easy enough to recreate, and has turned into one of the few dependable yearly success stories. But none of those have made quite the impact of The Notebook, and I suspect the franchise is slowly dying, making way for whatever comes next.
Previously on Loveless