Love letters — whether written to confess feelings, break a heart, or just get someone all hot and bothered — are a tried-and-true staple in romance films. Movies are a visual medium, of course, but sometimes nothing gets the point across quite like the written word. Oftentimes, a letter is simply there to unload some exposition or add color to a relationship — but there are many movies where the letter (or letters) are integral to the plot. In Netflix’s latest rom-com To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, letters are the movie. The film’s heroine, Lara Jean, writes love letters to five boys, but they’re meant for her eyes only. Obviously, though, those letters get mailed out … and that’s where the story kicks off.
Although the secret letter mailing works out for Lara Jean, sometimes letters in movies are more trouble than they’re worth. Regardless of the outcome, there’s always a lesson to be learned from characters trying their hand at expressing themselves and their heart’s desires through writing. We’ve taken a closer look at nine movies with letters baked into the plot to learn a thing or two about putting our hearts to pen (or quill or typewriter ink, really whatever you’ve got) and paper. Read on before you decide to mail out your own secret stash.
The Movie: To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before (2018)
The Lovers: Lara Jean Song Covey (Lana Condor) and the five boys she’s had crushes on.
The Letters: Shy high-schooler Lara Jean is afraid of love, so whenever she has overwhelming feelings for a boy, she writes a letter to him to get it out of her system. She then puts that letter in an envelope and addresses it. It’s a surprise to literally no one except Lara Jean when those five letters, supposedly safely hidden away, get mailed out (spoiler: her little sister did it), and the boys have follow-up questions. Humiliation aside, the letters put Lara Jean back into the orbit of old crush and cool guy Peter Kavinsky (Noah Centineo), and the two strike up an unlikely romance.
Are These Letters Any Good?: They’re age-appropriate letters written by a hopeless romantic. I wouldn’t suggest an adult plagiarize them for her or his own wooing purposes, but they feel true to the character.
Should These Letters Have Been Written?: Sure, why not? They’re harmless, they help an introvert express herself, and despite some awkwardness with her older sister who discovers her ex got a letter from Lara Jean, they ultimately lead our heroine to find love. Write on, girlfriend.
What’s the Lesson Here?: Don’t address secret love letters unless you want them to get mailed, ya dummy.
The Movie: Bright Star (2009)
The Lovers: Fanny Brawne (Abbie Cornish) and John Keats (Ben Whishaw)
The Letters: Flirty, fashionable Fanny meets and falls hard for reserved, broke-ass poet John Keats. While he’s off writing and trying not to be so broke, the two build their relationship over a series of gorgeous, swoony love letters. Would you expect anything less from John Keats? They’re all “I cannot exist without you” and “three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.” These letters and his poetry are really all Fanny has left of John when he dies of tuberculosis soon after.
Are These Letters Any Good?: No other letters need apply, these letters are the best letters.
Should These Letters Have Been Written?: Yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Both for them — they only have a few short years together — and for us; Keats’s letters to Fanny Brawne are real, so feel free to swoon at your leisure.
What’s the Lesson Here?: If you’re dating a poet and he isn’t writing letters to you about wishing he were a butterfly, you’re doing it wrong.
The Movie: The Shop Around the Corner (1940)
The Lovers: Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) and Alfred Kralik (Jimmy Stewart)
The Letters: Ah, there’s so much romance waiting in postbox 237. Klara and Alfred are co-workers who can’t stand each other, which is super-inconvenient because they are also unknowingly falling in love with one another as anonymous pen pals (does it sound vaguely familiar? Picture Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan as business rivals falling for each other over email). Their letters to each other run the gamut of topics, and it’s easy to see how they go gaga for each other. And when Jimmy Stewart reads some of those letters out loud, well, gird your loins, people.
Are These Letters Any Good?: They’re no John Keats, but they are very, very nice all on their own.
Should These Letters Have Been Written?: How else would Klara and Alfred know they’re crazy for each other?
What’s the Lesson Here?: Be nice to your co-workers in case one of them turns out to be a secret love interest. I mean, it works out this time, but guys, that could get so awkward!
The Movie: Pride & Prejudice (2005)
The Lovers: Elizabeth Bennet (Keira Knightley) and Fitzwilliam Darcy (Matthew Macfadyen)
The Letter: There’s lots of letter correspondence throughout Pride & Prejudice but The Important Letter, in every adaptation, is the one Darcy writes to Elizabeth apologizing for being an ass, outing George Wickham as, well, a real dick, and explaining why he tore apart Bingley and Jane. It is an extremely large step toward Elizabeth and Darcy taking the blinders off their dumb, beautiful eyes and finally seeing each other for who they are: soul mates!
Is This Letter Any Good?: It’s mostly business, but written in the style of the day, it still sounds flowery and romantic. On his sister and her ill-fated affair with Wickham, Darcy writes: “I will not attempt to convey the depths of Georgiana’s despair.” I mean, the brooding dude can turn a phrase.
Should This Letter Have Been Written?: Definitely! Of all the letters discussed today, this one has the most concrete purpose — most are meant to woo with words or break hearts, but this one is about righting wrongs and making sense of some confusing actions. Darcy isn’t great at conveying emotion face-to-face, so if he needed to write a letter then he needed to write a letter. It gets a lot done.
What’s the Lesson Here?: Misunderstandings kill love pretty easily, so sometimes it is best to really clarify things without interruption via the written word. Also, apologize to people. Oh, and also: Read letters from mysterious men with moody music playing the background. It adds a special something to the occasion.
The Movie: The Notebook (2004)
The Lovers: Noah (Ryan Gosling, James Garner) and Allie (Rachel McAdams, Gena Rowlands)
The Letter: There’s a whole year worth of letters in this movie, but because moms are evil and hate love, Allie never receives the letters Noah wrote to her. Instead, they were torn apart, and her family moved away. When she reunites with Noah years later and is all, “WTF didn’t you write?” he’s like, “Excuse me, I wrote my sad little heart out to you 365 TIMES.” (I’m paraphrasing, but Allie’s mom withholding those letters really messed things up.) Thankfully, she saved the letters and gives them to Allie (feeling guilty, mom?), so we do get to hear Noah’s final letter to Allie, in which he tells her he knows it’s over (spoiler: it still isn’t over!). He tells her that he’ll “remember how we spent a summer beneath the trees,” and honestly, people should take note that talking about spending time under trees is insanely romantic for reasons no one knows. Love is a mystery!
Is This Letter Any Good?: I’ll take the dream house over the letter any day, but “the best love is the kind that awakens the soul” isn’t so bad.
Should This Letter Have Been Written?: Technically, no. Noah shouldn’t have needed to write this letter but, moms. At least the 365 letters offer proof that he didn’t just abandon Allie and their existence helps reconcile things between them. I GUESS THERE’S THAT.
What’s the Lesson Here?: I know he joined the army and was thus a bit busy, but, like, if your true love isn’t replying you should probably Go To Her at least once. You’ll write for 365 days but you won’t go knock on her door? Yeesh.
The Movie: Dear John (2010)
The Lovers: John (Channing Tatum) and Savannah (Amanda Seyfried)
The Letters: Yeah, yeah, Nicholas Sparks loves using letters as plot devices and really doubles down here with the whole “Dear John” letter thing. John and Savannah fall in love on the beaches of South Carolina while John is on leave from the Army. When he has to go back, the two stay in touch over letters until it gets to be too much for Savannah and she writes him AN ACTUAL DEAR JOHN LETTER because we are blessed. Channing Tatum is very sad, but eventually the guy she dumped him for dies and they reunite … so, that’s weird and interesting.
Are These Letters Any Good?: Snoozefest. The best letter in this movie is actually not a romantic love letter at all, but the letter John writes to his dying father (played by Richard Jenkins) with whom he has a contentious relationship because of his father’s undiagnosed Asperger’s. Now, that’s a letter. This movie should’ve just been about John and his dad but I guess people want the love, so here we are.
Should These Letters Have Been Written?: They were in love and he was in the army, so it makes sense. Also, the movie is called Dear John so there better be letters somewhere.
What’s the Lesson Here?: I guess just beware if your name is John and someone likes writing letters to you because one day they may see the ‘Dear John’ humor of it all and things will take a turn.
The Movie: Casablanca (1942)
The Lovers: Rick Blaine (Humphrey Bogart) and Ilsa Lund (Ingrid Bergman)
The Letter: When we first meet ex-pat and nightclub owner Rick, he’s a bitter man with loyalty to no one. We quickly learn it’s because of this letter. Well, okay, it’s because of Ilsa, the person who wrote this letter. Rick and Ilsa had a whirlwind romance in Paris, but just as they are about to flee the city as it falls to the Germans, Rick is stood up by Ilsa at the train station. Friend and piano player Sam (Dooley Wilson) delivers a letter informing him that she cannot go with him and he can’t know why. And all of this happens in the rain, making it infinitely sadder.
Is This Letter Any Good?: It’s brusque and vague and offers no closure — Ilsa might as well have just written the lyrics to “As Time Goes By” if she wanted to break the guy’s heart so badly.
Should This Letter Have Been Written?: No! All Rick wanted to do was drink Champagne with her, love her forever, and say, “Here’s looking at you, kid.” At the very least Ilsa should’ve dumped Rick in person. Her husband was alive — that’s a very understandable reason to break up with someone. He would’ve understood! I mean, he still would’ve felt like he had “his guts kicked out,” but he would’ve understood.
What’s the Lesson Here?: Always read sad letters in the rain in order to mask your tears.
The Movie: Atonement (2007)
The Lovers: Cecilia Tallis (Keira Knightley) and Robbie Turner (James McAvoy)
The Letter: Ugh, this fucking letter. Robbie, the Tallis’s housekeeper’s son, writes a series of letters apologizing to Cecilia after the two get in a vase-based argument that is really about Robbie’s plans to go off to medical school and the boiling sexual tension that exists between them. He writes one very formal, very 1935 British version and one very sexually explicit version that might cause a person to clutch his or her pearls even in 2018. Mistakenly, it is this latter letter that he puts in an envelope and hands to 13-year-old Briony (Saoirse Ronan) to deliver to her older sister. Briony reads the letter, is scandalized because she’s a 13-year-old who doesn’t understand what’s going on, and hurt because she loves Robbie. Jealous of her sister, angry with Robbie, bored, and naïve, when Briony discovers her cousin has been sexually assaulted on the grounds, she accuses Robbie and offers the letter as proof of his deviancy. Robbie is wrongly imprisoned, the lovers are thwarted, and then World War II happens and if you can even believe it: things get devastatingly worse from there.
Is This Letter Any Good?: I mean, it gets to the point.
Should This Letter Have Been Written?: The hardest of nos.
What’s the Lesson Here?: Don’t write letters.
The Movie: The Lake House (2006)
The Lovers: Kate Forster (Sandra Bullock) and Alex Wyler (Keanu Reeves)
The Letters: Lonely Chicagoans Kate and Alex realize that they own the same gorgeous glass lake house two years apart — and can communicate through time via their magic time-traveling mailbox. 2004 Alex and 2006 Kate begin writing honest, flirty, romantic letters to one another, and also one time Alex (he’s an architect, naturally) takes Kate on a walking tour of Chicago by letter. It’s hella cute. But this isn’t some letter-writing time-traveling rom-com. This is a drama, people. Kate realizes that Alex has been killed two years in the past and she writes a letter to warn him — never has waiting for the flag on a mailbox to go down been so intense. It works and the lovers finally find each other in 2008. Why does this mailbox have these powers? No one knows and no one cares because the time-traveling mailbox reunites the two beautiful people from Speed.
Are These Letters Any Good?: Does it matter?!
Should These Letters Have Been Written?: I’m sorry, did you not see the part where I said these letters travel through time and save Keanu Reeves’s life?
What’s the Lesson Here?: Whenever you move, always check the mailbox in case a romance that is unbound by time and space awaits you.