Every Nicholas Sparks adaptation is a contract. The subgenre comes with certain deliverables: Beautiful star-crossed lovers, sure, but also pleasant, comfortable settings (usually somewhere in the Carolinas), mild class-and/or-cultural conflict, mystical connections (in one, a woman’s son winds up with her beloved’s heart), and of course a tragic twist which then prompts a late-inning transformation of agony into hope. Oh, and aphorisms. Lots and lots of aphorisms. (From The Last Song: “Truth only means something when it’s hard to admit.” From Dear John: “The saddest people I’ve ever met in life are the ones who don’t care deeply about anything at all.” From this one: “If you see a man sleeping on a cold floor, there’s sure to be a beautiful woman nearby.”) These aren’t just stories, they’re lifestyles to be adopted — ways of being in the world. And The Choice is one of the more extreme iterations of Brand Sparks, cinematically speaking. It contains both the best and the worst of what we’ve come to expect from his work.
Which is odd, because, at least initially, The Choice feels less dramatic than your typical Sparks setup. Most of the film follows the predictable mutual romantic longings of strapping, easygoing Wilmington veterinarian Travis Parker (Benjamin Walker) and his somewhat high-strung new next-door neighbor Gabby Holland (Teresa Palmer). She doesn’t like that he blasts music as he chills out by the lake, nor is she charmed by his dog (allegedly) impregnating hers. They annoy the hell out of each other, which in Sparksland mean they’re destined to be together. “Why’d you do that?” she asks when he finally goes in for the big kiss. “’Cause you bother me,” he whispers.
When it’s charting Gabby and Travis’s steadily growing attraction, The Choice is light and lovely. A laid-back vet with a lake house and a grill isn’t exactly Heathcliff from Wuthering Heights, but Walker brings a slight, pursed edge to Travis’s languid drawl — not so much as to make him brood, but just enough to draw us in. That contrasts nicely with Palmer’s quick, dancerly vibrancy. She bounces and twirls, while he slinks and purrs. They have terrific chemistry, which is more than half the battle with these movies. Also, there are puppies, and it’s hard to resist a goddamn Nicholas Sparks movie with puppies. (“There’s nothing cuter than puppies in a basket!” the normally calm Travis yelps at one point, and I’m not entirely unconvinced it’s not a blown take that director Ross Katz decided to leave in.)
But then, we get to “the choice” part of The Choice, and it all goes to hell. The story offers up a couple of red herrings at first: Gabby has a hunky doctor boyfriend (Smallville’s Tom Welling), and there’s much ado about Travis repeatedly getting back together with an old high-school flame (Alexandra Daddario). Maybe in Sparks’s original novel (which I haven’t read) these felt more like tangible choices that the characters might be torn about; here, they’re just emotional set dressing. We don’t buy them for a second as genuine romantic detours. In part that’s because Walker and Palmer, while perfectly good at being adorable, seem less certain when the film calls on them to express conflict, or pain, or genuine sadness.
No, the real choice gets hinted at in the film’s opening scene, a framing device which shows Travis arriving in a hospital with flowers. Right before the film flashes back to tell its main story, he informs us in voice-over about how life is just a series of decisions — “seemingly insignificant decisions that clear the path for monster-truck, life-altering ones” — and about a huge choice he has to make. Pair that with a religious conversation that Travis and Gabby have midway through their courtship (he’s not a believer, she is), and with the terms set forth in our original contract with Mr. Sparks that something truly awful has to happen to one of the main characters, and it’s not hard to predict what kind of choice we’ll be faced with soon.
It’s not so much that the choice is a bad, or unfair, or loaded one. It’s more that it feels so narratively imbalanced. We spend so much time with Travis and Gabby’s burgeoning but relatively undramatic romance that the tragic twist feels rushed and, by Sparksian standards, not particularly creative. That in turn gives off the sense that it’s there more to prove a quasi-spiritual, possibly even political point than to provide an earned narrative resolution. And that’s not storytelling, that’s rhetoric. You feel manipulated, but not in the I-can’t-help-but-be-moved way that these films usually work. By the time its finale rolls around, The Choice has completely undone its own spell.