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Just when my parents thought they could begin their "golden years" together, my grandmother was stricken with Alzheimer's. My father, Bud Newman, fulfilled his vow to his dying father-in-law, to bring my grandmother to live with them if she ever became too ill to fend for herself. As he was the retired military officer, and my mother worked full time, my father served as Grandma's primary caregiver. Not too many years after Grandma died, my mother was diagnosed with small-cell lung cancer -- only three months from diagnosis to death. My father fulfilled another vow -- one he made on his wedding day -- to keep my mother in sickness and in health. For as long as he was able, my father cared for my mother at home, navigating the complex regimen that accompanies cancer treatment. My dad is the heroic lover.
Heroic love is scarce in contemporary film. You see glimmers of it in films such as Big Fish and even in the recent zombie love story Warm Bodies, and stupid versions of it in This Means War and the horrible film Savages. Heroic love is the love that everyone wants, but that few know how to give or get. It finds embodiment in the film that has become a Valentine's Day staple, The Notebook.
On the surface, The Notebook appears to tell the simple tale of Noah and Allie, two young lovers parted by class distinctions and circumstance, who find their way back to one another. The depth of the film is revealed not merely in the lovers' passion, but by the couple's long-term fidelity and commitment, despite the ravages of time. Heroic love is hard.
The story is introduced as an elderly man opens a book and begins to read to an old woman in a nursing home. Each episode he narrates comes alive visually. Though filmed in golden tones that suggest fantasy, The Notebook recognizes that communicating heroic love requires that it be grounded in truth, that it endure longsuffering, and that it must be passed from generation to generation lest it expire.
Just before The Notebook hit the theaters, I interviewed James Garner, who plays the elderly Noah in the film. I reminded him that his film would be opening just before Spiderman 2 -- probably the most anticipated action film of that summer. When the groaning stopped, I asked Garner a simple question: "What makes Noah a better hero than Spiderman?" Without missing a beat, Garner replied, "Because he's real, and that's [Spiderman 2 is] fantasy."
The fact is, of course, that both Spiderman and Noah are fictional characters. As Sir Phillip Sidney pointed out: History gives us examples, but few ideals. Philosophy gives us ideals, but few examples. Film and literature have the opportunity to give us both. The more real the circumstances, and the more realistic the hero, the more valuable are the lessons. The fantasy monsters that Spiderman confronts will never be faced by any of his viewers. The same cannot be said for the viewers of The Notebook. The villain of The Notebook is all too familiar -- Alzheimer's disease. One in ten people have a family member with Alzheimer's and one in three knows someone with the disease. No one you know will ever have to stand against Doc Octopus, but almost everyone will have to deal with the devastating effects of Alzheimer's.
The Notebook trumps Spiderman in a second area as well -- its hero is realistic. No one can aspire to be Spiderman -- there just aren't enough radioactive spiders to go around. Anyone with the will, however, can aspire to be like Noah. When asked if the love story of The Notebook is reality or fantasy, Ryan Gosling -- who plays the younger Noah -- said he thought it was fantasy, but added that he had never had that kind of love experience, so he wasn't sure. But Garner, who has been married for 49 years, was certain that heroic love is, or at least can be, a reality. What it takes to achieve heroic love is a person willing to sacrifice for the object of his affection.
Martyrs vs. Disciples
The Notebook invariably brings up comparisons to Titanic -- who is the more romantic, true, or heroic lover, Jack or Noah? I have always contended that it is easier to be a martyr than a disciple. A martyr has to die only once; a disciple, every day. The more important question about love is not whether someone is willing to die for it, but whether someone is willing to sacrifice and live for it.
In discussing Titanic with students over the years, I have often asked them to think of what we know of Jack's character -- a fun-loving, exciting, impulsive, unemployed sketcher of naked French prostitutes -- and try to determine that, had Jack survived, whether he and Rose would have had a successful marriage? When push came to shove, Jack was able to make the single grand gesture to the beautiful woman, and give his life that Rose might have a chance to live. But could Jack, would Jack, have married Rose? And if so, could he have put up with the daily self-denials that are required to maintain a marriage over fifty years, when his lover is no longer young and nubile? G.K. Chesterton commented that many people say that they will do anything for love, except sacrifice for it.
Noah is the antidote to Titanic's Jack. Even as a young man Noah establishes his character. In the face of class warfare waged against him by Allie's mother, he writes to her every day for a year -- heedless of receiving no letters in reply. When he returns from the war, he keeps his promise to her to rebuild a ruined old mansion, incorporating her desires into the plan. He does this, even though he can have no real hope that she will ever see it, or that he will ever have her -- it is an exercise in faith. He restores the house because he promised he would, nothing more. Any teenage girl (and many older women as well) would swoon at this level of devotion, but the real clincher has nothing to do with the passionate love shared by the attractive, young Noah and Allie -- instead it comes as we watch them in their twilight years.
Noah's sacrificial character extends into his old age. His wife, Allie, the object of his heroic love, no longer recognizes him. She lives in a care home, and he has moved there to be with her. Every day it's as if he meets her anew, to read to her the story of their lives in hopes that the miracle of recognition will open her eyes and he might have her again, even for only a few precious minutes. The miracle comes and goes -- transporting Noah from rapture to heartbreak. He knows that joy and pain may come with any sunset, and wills himself to revisit it every morning. When his children beg him to end his suffering and come home, he tells them that Allie is his home.
The odds that any of us will be placed in a situation where we would have to die for the ones we love are very slender. But nearly everyone who ever loves will be required to live sacrificially with his or her beloved. The kind of character that produces heroic love is described in I Corinthians 13, where we are told it "bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things." Noah's long-suffering, faithful, hopeful, and enduring love is an ideal that seems almost archaic in a world where young people describe their romantic habits as "hooking up."
Be An Example
Throughout a day of interviews, nearly every principal involved in the making of The Notebook -- the actors, the screenwriter, the producers, and even the director -- commented on the widespread appeal of heroic love. Few had experienced it themselves, but all hoped for it. When heroic love is described in detail, nearly all of my students over the years have yearned to experience it for themselves -- they simply do not know how. And with popular culture pumping out tawdry reality shows that ridicule commitment and films such as Project X that glorify adolescent irresponsibility, and This is 40 which spends most of its minutes making marriage appear like an eternal slog, it is little wonder.
It seems that all films that espouse strong traditional virtues are set in the past. At the time of the interview, 27-year-old Rachel McAdams was fresh off her contemporary high school man-eater role as Regina in Mean Girls when she took on the period character of young Allie. I asked if she thought her generation could learn anything about love from her grandparent's generation. At first she popped off with a standard response, "trying to teach people anything about love is kind of pointless." But then she thought more about it and offered: "They could set a good example." She spoke about the need to wait, "there isn't instant gratification in love, I think it's a lot harder than people think." McAdams said she didn't feel qualified to preach because she really didn't know that much about love, but it sounded to me like a pretty good sermon: set a good example, be willing to wait, be ready to work hard.
The Notebook earns its PG-13 rating -- the love scenes are, if not explicit, certainly erotic. The young passion of the two leads is what will get the late-teens through Gen X people to watch. It's a set-up. The real message of The Notebook is not about the enthusiastic rush of first love, it is the story of how daily sacrifice, the willingness to expose oneself to pain to achieve the greater good of the beloved, is a bargain worth making over and over again. People need to hear that story. I am blessed to have my own personal example. Thanks Dad.
Marc T. Newman, Ph.D., is the president of MovieMinistry.com, an organization that provides sermon and teaching illustrations, Bible studies and discussion cards, drawn from popular film, and helps the Church use movies to reach out to others and connect with people. Dr. Newman also teaches in the graduate program of School of Communication and the Arts at Regent University. Requests for media interviews, or reprints of this article, can be made to firstname.lastname@example.org.