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by Gabriel Chong | 14 February 2010

For seven weeks, “Avatar” was unchallenged atop the U.S. box office. Then came “Dear John”, the adaptation of the Nicholas Sparks bestseller starring Channing Tatum and Amanda Seyfried which blew away all industry forecasts by dethroning “Avatar” from the top spot and opening with US$30.5m, the second highest-grossing Super Bowl weekend gross.

If there was any doubt about the appeal of Nicholas Sparks in mainstream America, let the box-office success of “Dear John” set that to rest. In fact, “Dear John” is the fifth Sparks novel Hollywood has turned into a movie- and it certainly won’t be his last. The sixth, “The Last Song”, starring Miley Cyrus of which Sparks personally wrote the screenplay for, is due out in April and another two, “The Last Song” and “True Believer” are already in the works.

Yes, you could say that Sparks is one of the most desired brand names in Hollywood today. The beauty in Sparks’ novels lies in the simplicity of their premise- a divorced single mum finds a romantic love letter from a grieving widower in a bottle washed ashore and tracks down the author in “Message in a Bottle”; a high-school student put on community service meets a quiet, bookish girl with a tragic secret whom he falls in love with in “A Walk to Remember”; and a soldier’s relationship with a conservative college girl is put to the test when he reenlists after 9/11 in “Dear John”.

It is this simplicity that has arguably led to the popularity of his novels. Sparks makes sure that his characters are easily relatable, the kind of people Sparks likes to call Joe Average- basically the people middle America loves to embrace. They are far from ordinary though; rather, they are almost always sentimental at heart- writing love letters, taking strolls in the park or spending nights together staring up into the stars in the sky.

Who wouldn’t want to be loved by someone as fiercely romantic as a character in a Sparks’ novel? Certainly, not the hordes of fans that have made his novels the bestsellers they have become. But it must also be said that one doesn’t go into a Sparks’ novel expecting a happy ending- indeed, one is more likely to find something bittersweet at best, tragic at worst.

Thanks to his formula, critics have readily dismissed his books, calling them sappy melodrama and even chastising them for being plain manipulative. Sparks however disagrees- he is quick to point out that there is a fine line between drama and melodrama, and his books belong to the former.

“It is this line between evoking genuine emotional power and being manipulative. I would agree, that’s just about the hardest thing you can do, because you are talking about stories that are very internally conflict driven and it’s real easy to go overboard,” he said in a recent interview with Collider. Case in point- “Dear John”, where one of his characters has autism, and another Asperger’s syndrome.

At least in the case of “Dear John”, it would be erroneous to think that Sparks treats these issues lightly, especially since he does have a personal brush with them. “My second son has some of these issues,” he revealed. “I don’t know what his exact diagnosis is. It’s a big long spectrum. He’s somewhere in that spectrum and once you’re in the spectrum, you can move up or down or get better or worse and all of these things.”
Quite surely, it is Sparks’ empathetic voice that has moved hordes of readers- and continues to do so even after 15 books. It is this same group of readers that have most likely propelled “Dear John” and his other movie adaptations into the box-office successes that Hollywood is knocking on his door for more of.

Studio heads know that a Sparks film doesn’t take that much to make- every one of his films cost about US$20m to US$30m. But his most successful to date, 2004’s “The Notebook”, ended up grossing five times as much worldwide.

“Everybody talks about 'The Notebook' — it's the standard by which all romance films are judged in popular America since it was released,” said producer Marty Bowen of “Dear John” in an interview with The Chicago Tribune. “In the world of romance and Hollywood, Nicholas Sparks is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
Sparks, however, doesn’t take this lightly. “I’m in a fortunate position compared to a lot of writers that I can pick and choose who I work with for the most part, because there might be 2 or 3 producers, for instance, that are interested in a project of mine,” he said.

“I pick people that I like and I pick people that I think understand what I’m trying to do. Not everybody does. Not everybody does - whether it’s a director or a producer or whatever. But, like I said, I’ve been very fortunate,” Sparks added. For the record, he’s happy with what the cast and director Lasse Hallstrom (of “Hachiko” and “The Cider House Rules”) did with “Dear John”. “I think they did a wonderful job”, he said.

In fact, Sparks trusted them so much that he visited the set of the film for a total of one day- and he will tell you too that he doesn’t need that level of control over his films. “Films are very different mediums than literature,” he said. “One’s a story told in words. One’s a story told in pictures. Some things work better in one. Other things work better in the other. And as long as you capture the spirit of the characters and the spirit and the intent of the film and the basic journey, I’m pretty okay.”

No doubt the Hollywood executives and producers would be more than happy to hear that. As Denise Di Novi, producer of four of Sparks’ movie adaptations said: "How many authors can say that every single one of their movies are successful? And I think they're just going to get more and more popular. His stories give great comfort to people. They're wish fulfillment."

And to fulfil the wishes of readers and fans of Nicholas Sparks, Hollywood will continue to rely on the brand name that has so far not proven wrong- hey, as much as “Avatar” was already in its eighth week of release, could anyone have foreseen “Dear John” knocking it off its perch? Probably not- till now.

Dear John opens here on 25 February 2010

Nicholas Sparks

Message In A Bottle (1999)

A Walk To Remember (2002)

The Notebook (2004)

Nights In Rodanthe (2008)

Dear John (2010)

The Last Song (2010)

By Gabriel Chong
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