Women’s Romantic Fiction in Film

I am not a huge consumer of women’s romantic fiction because I like a good story – and so I can’t speak intimately to the ins and outs of the genre. It would appear superficially that this genre is formulaic in the extreme so that the story is something secondary (contrived) and the primary focus is on the romance.

Traditionally, to my mind, this isn’t a cinematic model of storytelling. There has been a cottage industry of romantic stories for women on cable – Lifetime, Oxygen, Hallmark, etc. However, while having one’s script referred to as a “little Lifetime drama” can mean a lot of things, it doesn’t usually mean Oscar.

But, don’t get me wrong – I like Twilight as much as the next girl (despite the fact that I read the first book years ago and find the tween sensationalism a bit exhausting, and also overlooking the incredibly suspicious parallels to Charlaine Harris’ Southern Vampire Mysteries, which are fantastic and have a strong female protagonist, and if you haven’t read them, you should). But even in something as pedantic as Twilight, we have a basic A story. Both Edward and Bella have lives, they have goals, and are trying to accomplish something in their life outside of their love affair. We have antagonists and also basic dramatic tension.

I have bought several women’s romantic novels within the last year to try to better familiarize myself with the genre but yet haven’t been able to compel myself to actually read them. I have a sinking feeling I already sort of know what I’ll find there. I read that paragraph on the back and I could pitch you that story.

So, last season, when I read a handful of screenplays that were overt in the genre of women’s romantic fiction, I was all too confident in passing on them because I felt, at that time very strongly, that women’s romantic fiction isn’t a cinematic genre of its own. I simply didn’t feel there was enough story or character to sustain a cinematic journey.

Broad Comedy and Romantic Comedy are cinematic genres, yes – but Romance Novel?

And yet now we have the birth of the sensation known as Nicholas Sparks, who, despite apparently being a man, successfully writes women’s romantic fiction and has created a cottage industry of films based on his romance novels.

Nicholas Sparks has birthed such sensations as “The Notebook,” “A Walk To Remember,” “Dear John,” “Nights in Rodanthe,” “The Last Song,” with “The Lucky One” and “True Believer” in development.

“Letters to Juliet” hits theatres soon. This concept seemed so much like a Sparks novel that I thought it was one (although it is not).

This type of screenwriting flips traditional cinematic convention upside down – that the love story is never the A story but the B story; the romantic co-protagonists should both be working to accomplish a goal, etc.

In many of these stories, one might argue that the love story is the A story. I might even play devil’s advocate and argue that beyond the love story, there really isn’t anything substantive or compelling to them – but then, I wonder, where is the dramatic tension? Without fundamental dramatic tension, what compels me to keep watching?

I recently forced myself to watch “Nights in Rodanthe” on cable (with thumb strategically hovered over the fast-forward TIVO button), which I will admit, had me rolling with laughter by the end because it was so thoroughly planted in cliched melodrama. That’s the kind of movie that is actually much more fun if you try to anticipate the cheesy dialogue and act it out before the characters, because we all know before it hits the screen what’s coming.

That said, I very much enjoyed “A Walk To Remember” because while the relationship was a significant factor in keeping the momentum moving forward, it was a Romeo and Juliet story model (archetypal drama). Each of the male and female leads had real issues they were struggling with in their own lives that felt substantive and not wholly contrived. One could argue that this is also true in theory for the characters in “Nights in Rodanthe,” however, to me, in this story, it felt more like the characters’ personal struggles were simply vehicles to get them into the love relationship and the tragedy that comes later.

So, I’m going to say it: ladies – and gentlemen – if it’s your heart’s desire to write women’s romantic fiction for the screen, have at it. Melodrama is back with a vengeance! There’s a solid place in moviemaking for you, too.

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