LOS ANGELES — Hours before the Hollywood premiere of “Dear John” earlier this week, best-selling author Nicholas Sparks was sitting in the expensive hotel room he’d been put up in, continually glimpsing at his iPhone as it lighted up with phone calls and text messages.
“That’s my literary agent,” he said. “And now here’s a producer from the film.”
Channing Tatum, Amanda Seyfried, Richard Jenkins, Henry Thomas, Scott Porter
(Sony Pictures; US theatrical: 5 Feb 2010 (General release); UK theatrical: 7 May 2010 (General release); 2010)
Sparks, 44, had flown in earlier that day from his home in North Carolina for the opening of the fifth movie adaptation of one of his books. The sixth, “The Last Song,” starring Miley Cyrus, is due out in April, and an adaptation of his novel “The Lucky One,” already in the works, will potentially make seven.
Sparks, the author of 15 books with more than 50 million copies in print worldwide, writes love stories that he insists are about Joe Average — guys who build furniture, high school students, soldiers. But the things that happen to his characters are far from standard: They pen fanciful love letters to one another and scale Ferris wheels to ask girls out on dates. Those idyllic moments translate exceptionally well on screen — which has made Sparks one of the most desired brand names in Hollywood today.
A 2004 movie adaptation of his novel “The Notebook,” starring Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams as star-crossed lovers, was made — like most of his adaptations — for $20 million to $30 million, but grossed around $115 worldwide at the box office, while DVD sales of the film top 11 million to date.
“Everybody talks about ‘The Notebook’ — it’s the standard by which all romance films are judged in popular America since it was released,” said Marty Bowen, who served as a producer on “Dear John.” “In the world of romance and Hollywood, Nicholas Sparks is the Good Housekeeping seal of approval.”
Sparks, not one for false humility, made it clear he also believes this to be true.
“There’s a really big difference between having one novel made into a film and having seven. Alice Sebold had ‘The Lovely Bones.’ Is her life changed now?” Sparks asked. “But when you start getting over six, seven, we’re moving into territory where not a lot of people go.”
While racing through recollections of his earlier years, he spoke of his upbringing as if he has already mapped out its plot points. Example: While on spring break in Florida he met a young woman named Cathy, and instantly told her that they were going to get married one day. After writing her 150 love letters to convince her he was the right guy, she finally agreed (cue the wedding bells).
Years later, he took six months to write a novel inspired by the love story of Cathy’s parents and called it “The Notebook.” He bought a book on how to get a literary agent. Then he got one. The first publisher the manuscript was sent to purchased it for $1 million.
“‘The Notebook’ is a good novel. There are no flaws with that novel,” he said. “That’s a novel that will stay around for a long, long time. That’s a novel that is taught in schools — that is out in CliffsNotes. Classics just choose themselves.”
Although Sparks’ stories have resonated widely with audiences, he’s hardly been a critical darling. His most recent movie adaptation, “Nights in Rodanthe” — which was Warner Bros.’ second highest-grossing film of 2008 — was skewered by film critics. “Even those with a high tolerance for melodramatic drivel ... will find ‘Rodanthe’ insulting, an assault on their already perilously weakened romantic hearts,” said the New York Times.
And though most literary critics would cringe at calling Sparks’ books classics, the author did find a fan in Mandy Moore.
The pop singer turned actress made her feature film debut as a young girl falling in love while battling terminal cancer in 2002’s “A Walk to Remember,” and fought for the part after Sparks’ book resonated so strongly with her.
“I had such a visceral reaction to it that I remember not being able to read because I was almost hyperventilating while I was crying,” she said, laughing. “It was my first movie and I know people say it may be cliche and it’s a tearjerker or it’s cheesy, but for me, it’s the thing I’m most proud of.”
That film became a favorite of teen star Miley Cyrus, and she told Disney she wanted to do a movie like it.
“She wanted to do a romance. I know that she loves Nicholas Sparks and her family is also religious, and he’s sort of a faith-based author so it spoke to her on that level,” said Jennifer Gibgot, the sister of Adam Shankman and partner at his production company, Offspring Entertainment, which produced “The Last Song.”
Sparks met with Cyrus and asked her a few basic questions before sitting down to write the screenplay for the film, which also became his next novel. “I said, ‘Do you want to sing or not?’” Sparks said. “And she said no. Then I asked, ‘Do you have anything you really like?’ She said, ‘I like animals.’ Every teenage girl likes animals,” he said, laughing. “I said I’d see if I could work those in — other than that, the story was 100 percent mine.”
In “The Last Song,” Cyrus, 17, plays a rebellious young girl spending the summer with her estranged father when she falls in love with a local hunk.
“It was the best summer of my life,” Cyrus recalled giddily of filming. “It’s definitely edgier than what I’m known for, with all the kissing and stuff.
“I mean, I don’t get to be a normal teenager and go to high school, so this was a dream come true for me. I think every girl is going to walk away from the movie wishing something like this would happen to her.”
Denise Di Novi, who produced the first Sparks movie “Message in a Bottle” and has worked on three of his other adaptations, described him as a savvy businessman.
“How many authors can say that every single one of their movies are successful?” she said. “And I think they’re just going to get more and more popular. His stories give great comfort to people. They’re wish-fulfillment.”
It’s a point, of course, of which Sparks is well aware.
“You’ll quadruple your money making a Nicholas Sparks movie. It’s money in the bank,” he said. “It’s not ‘Spider-Man,’ but it’s a very successful formula.”