Morality in Hollywood: An Interview with Author Nicholas Sparks

STAN WILLIAMS

July 9, 2002 marked another milestone in the much wished-for moral transformation of Hollywood. That is the date of the home video release of the popular family-friendly film, A Walk to Remember, based on the novel of the same name by Catholic author, Nicholas Sparks.

What is important about the release is this: that in the face of a downward-trending national economy, the motion picture sector is enjoying record-breaking revenue and ticket sales because of the popularity of films with strong Judeo-Christian themes. Even industry leaders who have heretofore taken the brunt of Christian criticism for the lack of morally uplifting movies are recognizing where financial success lies.

President of the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) Jack Valenti has been pointing out that although just about every other industry took an economic hit after 9/11, 2001 saw the motion picture domestic box office set yet another revenue record (for the 8th year in a row) of $8.4 billion. More significant is that more people bought theater tickets in 2001 than in any year since 1959. John Fithian, president of the National Association of Theatre Owners, said — and here's the kicker — the records were because of "an important trend toward family films ... year after year, the box office tells an important story ... Family-friendly films sell; R-rated features do not."

MPAA ratings, however, only scratch the surface. At the heart of this recent success are the Judeo-Christian themes and values these family-friendly films propagate. That doesn't mean these motion pictures are squeaky clean and ready for Sunday School. Good stories require conflict often portrayed in disturbing but truthful ways. But what we have seen in recent years is an ever-increasing number of films that clearly communicate positive moral messages in creative and entertaining ways — and they have been hugely popular.

One of the morally pure messages that have appeared more and more in successful films is that sexual chastity is an important ingredient of true love; and that sex can wait until marriage. Not only have we seen this theme in 2002 adventure blockbusters such as Star Wars: Episode II Attack of the Clones and Spiderman, but in what many Christian critics consider the highlight of 2001 the teenage romance A Walk to Remember.

A Walk to Remember is about two North Carolina teens, Landon Carter (Shane West) and Jamie Sullivan (Mandy Moore), who are thrown together after Landon gets into trouble and is made to do community service. The problem is that Landon is one of the most popular boys in high school, while Jamie, a beautiful and sweet girl, is the brunt of ridicule and cruel jokes because of her Christian faith and strict father who is the pastor of a local Baptist church. Their relationship is complicated when they fall in love and Jamie reveals a secret that she and her father have kept hidden from the community.
This past week I had the opportunity to talk with Nicholas Sparks, the author of novel upon which the movie and its strong moral themes are faithfully based. Here are excerpts of our conversation incorporated with his comments about the film from his website.

Williams: I understand you're a Catholic.

Sparks: That is true. I was raised Catholic, baptized, confirmed, Sunday School, went to Notre Dame, go to confession, go to church weekly. My oldest son is an altar boy. All my children go to the Catholic school. My wife Catherine was raised Catholic. We were married in the Catholic Church.

Williams: What does it mean to you to be Catholic?

Sparks: Just about everything. God is the most important thing in our lives. I suppose that's true of everybody's lives, whether or not they want to believe it.

Williams: A WALK TO REMEMBER is unique from your other novels in a number of ways. Perhaps the most obvious is the story's spirituality, including a good deal of Bible reading between the main characters.

Sparks: The major challenge I faced in writing the novel was blending the spirituality into the text. Though faith is a powerful element of my own life, when I set out to write a novel, I'm guided by the simple thought of writing a story that most people will enjoy. Since religion and faith vary greatly among my readers, it was difficult to write such a story with a balance that wouldn't offend anyone. Nor did I want to preach to anyone. That's not a novel's purpose.

Williams: But your other novels, at least in an explicit sense, have very little spirituality. Why this one?

Sparks: This was a story of the beauty, power and innocence of first love. I also wanted the novel to show the power of faith. Ironically, in setting out to write about first love (which I did), I created a strong redemptive element that came from Jamie's faith, and though it wasn't intended, I think by the end, redemption was one of the more powerful elements. The characters were young and because of my own moral values, I wanted these two kids to be deeply in love, yet without the intimacy that normally accompanies such deep love. In other words, I didn't want them to engage in pre-marital sex.

Williams: But in your other novels, as the love relationship develops between older adults, they also fornicate, seemingly with impunity. A WALK TO REMEMBER takes just the opposite stance. Why?

Sparks: A sexual relationship between Landon and Jamie would ruin the novel, and the beauty of the story, and the lesson that the characters are trying to teach. Landon and Jamie were very young characters. There was just no way morally that I could write that and have them fornicate; a great many readers would have been offended.

Also, today, teens tend to be fairly promiscuous, and they tend to equate that with love. So, I had to have a very solid reason that you could honestly believe that Jamie and Landon were as deeply in love as any couple who has been married for 50 years. Yet, they had no real physical relationship whatsoever. That was the reason I set the novel in the 1950s. I always want my novels to be believable, and back then, things were different.

Williams: If the book was set in the 50s why is the movie set so much later?

Sparks: The film is set in the 1990s because the producer and I thought this was a wonderful film for teenagers because of the messages it provided strong faith, kindness, forgiveness, charity, redemption, and looking past the obvious to see the person within. These themes are especially important when compared to most movies geared for teens these days. A simple fact of Hollywood is that if we'd set the film in the 1950s, teens wouldn't have gone to see it. To interest them, we had to make the story more contemporary.

Williams: What was the story's inspiration?

Sparks: My sister. In many ways, Jamie Sullivan was my younger sister. Like Jamie, my sister was sweet. Like Jamie, my sister had tremendously strong faith. Like Jamie, my sister loved church. Like Jamie, my sister wasn't popular at school. Like Jamie, my sister was always cheerful. Like Jamie, all my sister wanted in life was to get married. And like Jamie, my sister got cancer. Like Jamie, my sister met someone. And like Landon, there was a long period of time when this fellow couldn't imagine himself marrying a girl like her. And yet, in the end, he couldn't help himself. Even when he knew she was sick, even when he knew that she might not make it, this man asked my sister to marry him. It was just about the sweetest thing that's ever been done for anyone, and I suppose I wrote this novel not only so that you could get to know my sister, but so that you would know what a wonderful thing it was that her husband once did for her. Sadly, my sister died in June 2000. She was thirty-three years old.

Williams: Some Christian pundits have criticized the movie saying it encourages Christian girls to date non-Christian boys with the false hope that the boy can be converted.

Sparks: That's not an accurate reading of the film or the novel. Although the novel and the movie are different, it's clear that Landon's family are members at Jamie's church. In one of the film's early scenes before their relationship begins, Landon is in church watching Jamie sing. And when Landon talks to Jamie's father, Hegbert, and asks permission to go out with Jamie, it's pretty obvious that Hegbert has known Landon his whole life. The novel says that Hegbert baptized Landon.

Williams: At the same time, Landon is not running with the straight-and-narrow crowd. I suppose that's true because story characters need arcs through which they change.

Sparks: Yes. You'll notice that Landon's a little rougher in the beginning of the film than in the novel, but his redemption is that much greater by the end. In my mind, that was a fair trade.

Williams: What kind of moral impact has A WALK TO REMEMBER had on youth, especially girls?

Sparks: O my goodness! I have received thousands and thousands of letters from young people who have read the book or seen the movie or both. And they are so sweet because so many of the ones who are religious say, "Thank you for making Jamie so real." She wasn't weird, she was just religious. But after that she was just a kid. She had hopes and dreams and fears and she got hurt, she didn't walk around in a bubble. She was human. And they thanked me for not poking fun at religion in anyway.

The second thing that tends to run through the letters is how important it is not to judge people by appearances and how good things can sometimes happen to good people, and sad things. But if you're really good you can still fall in love. So they were very thankful for that. But most of them say, "I want to be more like Jamie, be kinder and more confident about my faith."

End Notes

A Walk to Remember, the movie (PG), was produced by Denise DeNovi and directed by Adam Shankman for $11 million, and did $41 million at the domestic box office. That's a very good showing. But producers don't make much money on domestic distribution. What they hope for are strong sales and rentals in secondary markets, especially the all-important home video release which for this film began this week. If A Walk to Remember is marketed effectively in its secondary channels, its worldwide distribution gross could reach $200 million, a figure that would virtually guarantee that film investors will see the practicality of backing future films with similar Judeo-Christian themes and values. Let's hope!

For more information about Nicholas Sparks and the movie check out these websites:

ACKNOWLEDGMENT

Stan Williams. "Morality in Hollywood: An Interview with Author Nicholas Sparks." Catholic Exchange (July, 2002).

This article reprinted with permission from Stan Williams.

THE AUTHOR

Dr. Stan Williams is an international award-winning video and filmmaker. In 25 years, he has managed over 400 industrial productions, including numerous documentaries, live shows, theater, and live television as producer, director, writer, editor, and executive producer. Stan Williams is Executive Producer and Managing Director for SWC Films, an independent feature film development company seeking investment partners. He can be reached at Stan@StanWilliams.com.

Copyright 2002 Stan Williams


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