15 years after The Notebook, it's time for doomed teen romances to evolve
Teen audiences deserve movies that reflect the heartbreak that comes with being alive in a more nuanced way
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
15 years ago this month, The Notebook came out and changed the world as we knew it.
Well, sort of. While the Nicholas Sparks adaptation introduced us to the dream team of Ryan Gosling and Rachel McAdams, the story hinged on a trope that's fuelled countless tales of young love: doomed romance ending in death.
Of course, The Notebook's Noah and Allie were an exception to love meaning never having to say you're sorry — simply because they got to spend the majority of their lives together. When the couple was young, we never saw either character grapple with mortality outside of being so heartbroken living without the other that they wanted to die. But as they grew old (and with Allie suffering from advanced Alzheimer's), we saw only the quiet acceptance that death was coming, and then — spoiler alert — their mutual embrace of it. The movie ends with them dying side by side in their long-term care facility, and we're left to cry over how romantic it all is.
Now, whether or not you think The Notebook is truly romantic is a personal choice to make on your own time. (Personally, I hate The Notebook. Noah and Allie would be insufferable to hang out with, and both are in desperate need of friends. Plus, a relationship so all-or-nothing is unhealthy. What does "If you're a bird I'm a bird" even mean?) But regardless of your feelings about Noah, Allie and their obsessive tendencies, the film acts as a perfect stepping stone to stories of teen love tainted by someone's impending death. Specifically, movies like Love Story (ask your parents), A Walk To Remember (another Sparks instalment), The Fault in Our Stars, Five Feet Apart, and Midnight Sun — all of which serve as tales crucial to helping form our senses of mortality.
At least to an extent. Notably, all of the aforementioned films revolve around white, cis, hetero leads who explore a very narrow definition of love and relationships: boy meets girl, girl or boy is dying, and the one left behind goes on to live a life defined by the lessons their late partner taught them. Tears fall and promises are made, and those watching are left to ponder the preciousness of life and the fact that nothing is fair and everyone you love will eventually die.
Which is only a new lesson to learn as a teen if you've already been quite lucky. (Many of us become more than aware of the way death swoops in when we're much younger.) But that's the thing: even if you know nothing is permanent, that death comes for us all and that some people are dealt the most unfair and painful of hands, sick-teen films succeed — for a brief moment — at entrenching us in the type of love story that, in the immortal words of Anne Hathaway in Love & Other Drugs, "isn't fair" — and not only isn't fair, but renders all characters completely helpless. So ultimately, by the end of their two-hour run, these stories are so overwhelming and so over-the-top it's nearly impossible not to imagine how you would react, what you would do and how you would — or wouldn't — move on if you were in the same position as Jamie Sullivan or Landon Carter in A Walk To Remember.
As a teen who lived in the space between Love Story and A Walk To Remember, I found this in the form of Lurlene McDaniel books that followed the same careful formula. In each, one teen grappled with death, the other grappled with the realities of their partner grappling with death, and I'd inevitably finish every book in tears — even though I knew how death worked, and I knew that life was and is notorious for its cruelty. So I cried "about" fictional characters because I had nowhere else to put my what-ifs and fears — but by the time the Nicholas Sparks adaptations began, I'd already worked out that small sector of feelings and was cringing at Jamie's line, "You have to promise not to fall in love with me."
The thing is, teen films in this vein are important as an outlet for the emotions that accompany those embarrassing dramatic albeit formative years. They help usher in the realities of life and death, but — most importantly — they provide a space in which it's safe to feel and cry, even if the reasons behind each have nothing to do with anything happening on screen. They're tearjerkers (or at least intended to be so), sure, but they're merely the vessel through which to explore the emotions that define our teens.
But that doesn't mean they can't change or evolve. Right now, the typical cinematic (doomed) teen relationship favours cis, white, hetero characters, but love stories are more than that (they always have been) and should be represented accordingly — especially as teens have an increasingly profound understanding of the heartbreak that comes with being alive. So to stay relevant, tales of star-crossed lovers, of "promise not to fall in love with me" dynamics or of relationships so intense that one party vows to be a bird can't be exclusive to heteronormativity or whiteness. We need to open up the genre and give everybody a chance to use over-the-top Nicholas Sparks or John Green-esque tales as that outlet for every other emotion.
Or, at the very least, more Lurlene McDaniel books.