Monday, December 30, 2013

SAFE HAVEN: The Growing Anti-Institutionalist Villainy of Nicholas Sparks

Ah, the sweet sting of being a fan of Nicholas Sparks adaptations. You know there's a formula. You YEARN for the formula, and yet, you can't help turning a critical eye on the way each film tweaks the essential Sparkiness of rain-drenched, Carolina-tinged romance. Such was the case with Safe Haven (McStreaming!). We've got the beachy setting, we've got the painfully obvious objective correlatives ("New Start" paint primer anyone?) and we've got the script-crossed lovers, but what has changed is the nature of the obstacle between the two Abercrombie and Fitched B-list paramours: the patented Sparks obstacle (Sparkstacle?) that threatens to interrupt and dismantle the happily-ever-after of the film. If you actually care about such things, spoilers follow.

Films based on Sparks' "novels" always feature a cosmically-tinged "bad guy"--a force that plays the villain of the melodrama. In silent films he was the easily recognizable stock villain. In the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, this trope would take the face of Snidely Whiplash, strapping the heroine to the railroad tracks of certain doom. And in most of the Sparks adaptations, this incarnation of evil was just as uncomplicated, and just as unstoppable as that train. Former films feature villains such as CANCER (A Walk to Remember, The Last Song), or ALZHEIMER'S DISEASE/DEMENTIA (The Notebook), or TOO MUCH WATER (Message in a Bottle, Nights in Rodanthe). But lately in Sparksland, the bad guy is much less random, and much more human.

Both The Lucky One (2012) and Safe Haven (2013) place villainy in the character of a police officer. The Lucky One pits Zac Efron (a, crucially *retired* Marine) against a local sheriff deputy who is the former husband of the film's female love interest, relatively unfamous Taylor Schilling. Safe Haven takes the idea of the somewhat ominous local cop and raises it to Sleeping with the Enemy levels, giving heroine Julianne Hough a not-quite-ex-husband who is an alcoholic and abusive Chicago P.D. detective framing her for murder and hunting her down after she escapes his clutches and finds herself in an idyllic oceanside North Carolina complete with Josh Duhamel healing powers.

On the one hand, I can see this development as positive. Though Sparks is undoubtedly, creepily, conservative, it might be progressive to read this new, more localized and embodied source of evil as a critique of the institutionalization of power. Both The Lucky One and Safe Haven show how dangerous men manipulate existing power structures (the justice system) to further their own toxic domination. The conservatism of the small towns Sparks lauds then becomes a corrective to modernist demonstrations of power, and calls for a (nostalgic) return to interpersonal values.

However, then I think more, probably more than anyone should ever think about a Nicholas Sparks film, and fear that making abusive ex-husbands the villain takes the power (and the blame) away from random fate, and places it squarely in the hands of the female heroines. Both Schilling and Hough chose these men, and are rescued from them by the new, better male heroes (Efron and Duhamel). Sparks has introduced human culpability into the equation, and situated it squarely on the woman's shoulders. It's like the damsel in distress refused to block Snidely Whiplash on Snapchat.

Though it's never acceptable, fair, or remotely logical to blame the victims of domestic abuse for the crimes of their partners, Sparks' replacement of random acts of nature with former romantic partners seems a particularly ominous turn. If anyone other than me can bear it, we'll see what happens with The Best of Me next year.

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