Romance, Tragedy, and Responding to the Gifting of God: An Interview with Nicholas Sparks

Romantic tragedy continues to be a strong draw at the bookstore and the box office. Nicholas Sparks, author of numerous best-sellers, including The Notebook, A Walk to Remember, Dear John, and his latest The Last Song, is one of the top writers in this genre. On a sunny afternoon in Santa Monica, Sparks and I sat down to talk about his first screenplay for The Last Song (in theaters March 31), his thoughts about writing from a Christian perspective, and how Christians should respond to God’s call to the arts.

Marc Newman: This is your first screenwriting credit. On the other book adaptations for the screen, how much control did you have over the screenplay or the final edit?

Nicholas Sparks: I don’t get screenwriting credit. I do get asked for my notes and my thoughts and, depending on the studio, they carry a lot of weight or less weight. So, for instance, when I worked with Denise De Novi (a producer on Sparks’ next film, The Lucky One), she cares very deeply about what I think. The Lucky One, starts filming in May, that will be adaptation number four, so I’ll probably sit down with that script and literally put notes in for three full days and really try to figure out the elements that I think are missing. And then I’ll give the notes to them and they will take them or they won’t. In the end the film has to be going the way the director says, too.

MN: For people who are familiar with you primarily through the screen adaptations of your work, what do you wish they knew that would be apparent in your novels, but not so much on the screen?

NS: What a lot of people really don’t know is that in many ways the novels are just as powerful as the films. You can watch The Notebook, and love The Notebook, and look at the book and think to yourself, “I don’t have to read that because I saw the film” or “I already know the story, so the book won’t move me the way it did” – and yet it will. It’s the same thing with The Last Song. I don’t care if you’ve seen the film, the book is worth reading. I made them purposefully different. There is a wonderful journey that Steve undergoes; an introspective journey about faith – he’s really searching for God’s presence, and it’s a very large part of everything that Steve does. Ronnie is confronted with a different choice toward the end of the novel. These are things that are not in the film, and they are very powerful.

MN: How do your books reveal things about you and your character, in a way that we cannot see in screen adaptations?

NS: Film and novels are very different mediums. I also look at it this way; I’ve already had my turn. You want to see how I see The Last Song? Just walk into a bookstore, buy the book, read it, let your imagination go, and there it is. That’s my vision. When you cede control in an adaptation, I think it’s good that you also get someone else’s vision, how they see it.

MN: The interior lives of characters are more accessible in print than they are on a screen. How did you negotiate that transition as a writer?

NS: It’s tough. There’s a real efficiency in screenplays, and that efficiency often lends itself to cliché. So you have to try to do it without being cliché. There are different rules that you have to hold to when you do a screenplay as opposed to a novel. And it goes the other way too; some things work well in film that wouldn’t work so well in a novel. For instance, in The Last Song, what Ronnie does by covering up the turtle nest with a shopping cart, that is a very vivid, fun scene. You learn a little bit about her just by looking at what she did. That would be very hard to do in a book.

MN: In film you show, rather than tell?

NS: Yes, in pictures.

MN: All of your screen adaptations have featured death as a central character – sometimes stalking in the background in A Walk to Remember, sometimes as a surprise in Nights in Rodanthe, and sometimes more aggressively as with this current film. People speak of you as a writer of romance. What is the connection between death and romance?

NS: I write tragedies – updated Greek tragedies. That is a much more accurate term than to say I write romance. It’s the difference between Cinderella and Romeo and Juliet. Cinderella is a classic – it’s what the romance genre is: a fantasy, romantic escape. That’s not what I do. I do Romeo and Juliet. Love and romance are a part of it, but so is the rest of the range of human emotion. And sadness is part of that and can come in different forms. Now in the screen adaptations, yes, somebody always dies, but in my own novels they don’t. I mean The Wedding was very happy, and in The Guardian it was the dog that died, not people. But it is important to understand the link between love and tragedy: all great love stories, by definition, have to end in tragedy. The greater the love, the greater the tragedy when one of them dies.

MN: I always thought what C. S. Lewis said was profound. That men will promise you heaven on earth, but even if they could give it, every generation would lose it by death. One of them must, eventually, die.

NS: One of them must. Orson Welles said, “Show me a happy ending, and I will show you a story that’s not finished yet.”

MN: Specifically in The Last Song – people are going to focus on Miley Cyrus because this is her “breakout role” but I thought the film really belonged to Greg Kinnear, who plays her father, Steve. What made you decide to hide the rationale behind the parent’s divorce in this film?

NS: That was a big debate, and I lost that debate.

MN: Did you want to reveal it?

NS: I wanted to reveal. I revealed in the book and I revealed in my original screenplay. It was edited out. It was thought to be “too deep” for ten or eleven-year-olds. It was a judgment call. But Disney’s been at it a long time and they know best how to make a Disney movie – certainly better than I know how to make a Disney movie.

MN: This is Miley’s film, and she’s going to bring her audience…

NS: Yes. Am I disappointed? No. I’m okay with that. In the end I wanted a film that Disney is proud of. It was in there, they filmed it, then they said they were going to put it in, then they said, “No, we’re not,” then they said, “We are,” then they said, “No, we’re not.” (laughing). Finally I said, “Do whatever you want,” but my motto is, “When in doubt, take it out.”

MN: C.S. Lewis argued that the world doesn’t need more Christian writers, it needs more great writers who are Christians. I sense that you are committed to be the second kind. How does your theology inform your writing?

NS: Very much so. For example there are certain lines I will not cross in my writing. I don’t write with profanity, I don’t write about adultery, and if you say, “So what?” In a love story, what you have to have is a reason that the characters can’t be together. This provides the conflict. They can’t be together because, in The Notebook, parents drag them away, and the next time they meet, she’s engaged. They can’t be together in Dear John because he gets sent off to war and when he comes back she’s married someone else. They can’t be together in The Last Song because she’s only here for the summer, he’s going off to college, they’ll never see each other again. So what’s the easiest reason why two people can’t be together? It’s because one of them is married. It’s what they did in The Bridges of Madison County, it’s what they did in The Horse Whisperer, it’s the easiest one. I’ve written fifteen books without doing the easiest one. So, I don’t write about adultery and I don’t write about premarital sex between minors. I just don’t write it. I know it happens, I’m not naive. But just because it does happen, it doesn’t happen to a hundred percent of young people, so I want people to know that, “Hey, you’re seventeen, you can be in love and not go all the way.” These choices are informed by my theology. I’m also very comfortable writing about faith, for instance in The Last Song and in A Walk to Remember.

MN: After initially embracing motion pictures, the Church walked away from the movies by the 1940s, turning instead to radio. Now there seems to be a resurgence of interest in film and filmmaking by people of faith. What would you say to a Christian who wonders whether filmmaking is an appropriate calling?

NS: I think everybody is given gifts by the Lord. I think it is up to each of us to discover what those gifts are – that is, in fact, the theme of the Christian school that we founded: “uncovering gifts for the journey” – if you are a gifted storyteller, if you are a gifted director, if God gave you that gift, I think it is up to you to make the most of that gift. Otherwise, you’re not honoring God. So, I try to write great stories. I have these lines that I don’t cross. If you’re given a gift, it’s a sin not to use it. Some people ask, “Why do I still write?” I don’t need the money. So why do I do it? Because it’s a sin to waste God’s gift. If God gives you the ability to do something, you do it. You do it to honor God, who gave you that gift. So, sure, there is a calling. You need to set the lines that you’re not going to cross. I have been very happy that I have not crossed any of those lines since book one. I am happy that I have not descended from my principles in order to build a market share. Here I am. Take it or leave it.

MN: Have you considered exploring other genres or in writing a book that explores the process of writing from your worldview perspective as has Steven King, Anne Lamont, even Terry Brooks?

NS: Well, maybe. I haven’t thought about it recently, to tell the truth. I have a non-fiction book coming, it’s called Fishing With My Son. It’s a book about fatherhood.

MN: You have a book on coaching track too – running the 800 meters — don’t you?

NS: (laughing) Yes, it’s coming, I’m at the college level now. I just have to get through college and elite and the book is done. I mean, I’ve set everything out.

Sparks also told me that he strongly hopes to see a Broadway musical adaptation of The Notebook, but recognizes that the stage is an entirely different medium. He does not simply want the book or film reproduced with music tacked on. He also revealed some key elements in the book version of The Last Song that I cannot include here without spoiling your read. Just follow his advice. See the film, then go buy the book and find out for yourself.

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