by Ron Swanson
I don’t cry very much. Or rather, I don’t cry very much in the first person. Something bad happens to me, I bite my bottom lip, stiffen my resolve and wallow in a tearless self-pity. However, I realised that I might be hiding from my own true nature when an advert for Google made me cry. For the fifth time. In a week.
To be honest, this voyage of self-discovery has been a long time coming. While other boys were pretending to be in love with each other, emulating Maverick and Goose in Top Gun*, I was wailing at lines like “Oh Captain, my Captain” and “If you build it, they will come”. I wish I could tell you that led to me being a fully-functioning adult, but when your idea of romance comes not from serenading a co-worker in the canteen, but building a baseball field in your back garden to play catch with your dead Dad, it’s fair to say you’re in a spot of trouble.
I’ve never quite been able to shake my addiction to sentiment – it has ruined dates (The Lion King), alarmed my friends (Million Dollar Baby), and made me a laughing stock to complete strangers** (The Notebook). Like all other chasers of emotional, cinematic highs, I know that one of the pushers with the most regularly available product is novelist Nicholas Sparks.
The Lucky One, released in May at the UK box office, will be the seventh big screen adaptation of his work. They’ve had varying degrees of success at the box-office (the films starring Channing Tatum, Ryan Gosling and Liam Hemsworth have done better than those starring Kevin Costner and Richard Gere for some reason), but all follow a similar formula.
Ignoring Message in a Bottle and Nights in Rodanthe for a moment, the stories centre on an earthy, likable, beautiful female lead and a ‘bad’ boy, whose badness is entirely excusable due to some dark event in their back-story (The Last Song, which stars Miley Cyrus, actually flips this and has a ‘bad’ girl central character). The films always espouse strong family values and are deeply conservative in nature. They’re very slickly made for a teenage audience – tending to juxtapose their hopes (a hottie) with their fears (something bad happening to mum or dad), to create an emotional tsunami.
I was fairly immune to the charms of Dear John, A Walk to Remember and The Last Song, although none of them is without merit; but The Notebook absolutely floored me the first time I saw it, and I still found it deeply affecting the second time around.
Not only is The Notebook masterful in its manipulation, but it has real quality cut through it. For one thing, Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams have great chemistry. Their scenes together even manage to be a little sexy, which is a first for a Sparks adaptation. They can both act, as well, which differentiates them from Miley Cyrus and Liam Hemsworth, Mandy Moore and Shane West or Amanda Seyfried and Channing Tatum.
Gosling’s character isn’t a ‘bad’ boy, just one from the wrong side of the tracks, which means there’s much less time spent setting up his flaws, and then justifying them – time we get to spend understanding their attraction and the obstacles in their way. The supporting cast is stellar – James Garner, Gena Rowlands, Sam Shepard and Joan Allen are as good as it gets – and the film, like all Sparks adaptations, actually, benefits from the sort of scenery that could make anyone feel wistful and nostalgic.
So, why does it work, when the rest of the Sparks oeuvre doesn’t?
Actually, I think it’s because The Notebook doesn’t hold anything back. Every single emotional trigger-point it can hit, it does. There are old people battling illness, meddlesome parents whose behaviour links to their own past in an emotional reveal, war, death, first love remaining the truest love. These all have a cumulative effect; so by the final, predictable, gloriously bittersweet scenes, I’m unable to hold back the result of all of that emotional tenderising I’ve just been through.
Why, though? Surely if I can see the film pulling at my heartstrings, I should be able to resist it’s efforts? Well, for The Notebook, Million Dollar Baby, Atonement and too many others for me to feel comfortable sharing, even under a pseudonym, I can’t.
I don’t want to.
Much like an X-Factor contestant with the sob story, or the sportsman genuinely choked with emotion at the end of an event, it’s an opportunity to transfer my emotions onto someone else, and therefore not have to deal with the results of it. I search out these movies because I want to feel an emotional connection, and the easiest way to get there is through something cheap and transient, other – fictional – people’s pain and joy. It’s, basically, emotional porn. A journey for a quick and hassle-free resolution.
The Notebook provides that journey for me pretty comfortably. It’s the same journey I went on as a 10 year-old rewatching my ex-rental VHS copies of Field of Dreams and Dead Poets Society, and it’s a journey I’m fully prepared to go on again, when I go to a matinee showing of The Lucky One (fewer people to point and laugh at a matinee)…
* I may not have entirely understood what Top Gun was about, I was too busy rehashing Steel Magnolias in my mind.
** I’m pretty sure they were mean old women, though, so choose to see that as a reflection upon them, rather than me.