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I'm not sure how I've boxed myself into a corner, defending a Nicholas Sparks book, but here we are. I picked up the book of Safe Haven on a whim, knowing I'd probably wind up reviewing the movie and figuring I could use a heads up on what to expect. Then I saw the Safe Haven movie, out in theaters this weekend, and was amazed-- it had the power to make me actually appreciate the book.
If you're a fan of Nicholas Sparks books but you've never gotten on board with the movie adaptations, well, I think I finally know what you've been through. Here are the 5 biggest reasons that Safe Haven the book is far superior to Safe Haven the movie… and given how little time it takes to read a Sparks book, why you might be better off spending a few hours reading the book instead of seeing the movie this post-Valentine's weekend.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR SAFE HAVEN-- THE BOOK AND THE MOVIE-- ARE BELOW.
Katie leaves her husband in a hurry instead of planning it out. We see Katie (played by Julianne Hough) escape her abusive husband Kevin (David Lyons) in the very first scene of the movie, but if you're familiar with the book, it all feels wrong. She's throwing clothes in a suitcase, she's bleeding and frantic, and she rushes over to the neighbors' house for solace before taking off for the bus station. In the book Katie is practical and plans out her escape to a T, in a way that lets us know her character as a very smart woman caught in a nasty relationship. In the movie, she's closer to the typical abused woman you see in movies-- desperate to get out but without any idea of how to do it. It's a much less interesting character to follow.
We're not even supposed to know that Kevin is her husband until halfway through the movie. Seriously-- around the midpoint we finally learn that Kevin isn't an ordinary detective on the hunt for a fugitive, but the husband Katie has escaped from. Director Lasse Hallstrom treats this like it's supposed to be some huge reveal, but it's hard to imagine anyone walking into this kind of romance who doesn't already know that. Instead of getting into Kevin's head they way the book does, engaging with his twisted logic and fits of rage, we're watching him as if he's just some good-hearted cop… until he's not! Not only is it unfair to the character, but it's pandering to an audience that's definitely too smart for that kind of needless twist.
We're supposed to wonder if Katie is actually a murderer. As a tactic to hunt her down, Kevin lists Katie in some kind of national detective database as a murderer, which gets a wanted poster put up in the Southport police station with her face on it. It's basically the same idea as keeping Kevin's true identity a mystery-- putting in a potential twist that the audience is way too smart to fall for. Making matters worse, Alex (Josh Duhamel) eventually sees the wanted poster at the police station and confronts Katie about it, somehow also convinced that she's secretly a killer on the lam. It gives them the chance to have the fight scene that always occurs around the 2/3 mark of a movie, but come on, this is a Nicholas Sparks joint-- we all know the score, and it's ok to move past that and back into the kissing in the rain.
There's no actual suspense about how Kevin finds Katie. Surprisingly enough Nicholas Sparks isn't a half-bad detective novelist for half of Safe Haven, following Kevin as he hunts down Katie and getting into his brain as he rationalizes his behavior. It lends the book a lot of tension, as you dread the inevitable moment when he finds her, and helps balance out a lot of the sap of the romantic scenes. In the movie-- maybe because Hallstrom knows everyone bought a ticket for the romance on the beach-- the Kevin storyline feels like an afterthought, and it's generally irritating to cut back to him. The movie has no interest in giving him an internal life, just making him a Terminator on the way to ruin the romance. It shortchanges half of the book's entire story, and if you ask me, the most interesting half.
Jo is basically an afterthought. If you've been reading reviews of Safe Haven, you can tell that a lot of people are completely fixated on this twist-- which, to be fair, is insane in the book too. But at least in the book you get a sense of Jo as Katie's confidant, as an actual person who might exist in the world, with her own backstory that informs her conversations with Katie. In the movie Jo pops in and out of the story basically whenever it's convenient, giving Katie someone to walk with in montages about how she's fitting into the world and to talk about plot-advancing subjects. She's as real as… well, a ghost. Maybe the movie just wanted you to get the twist as fast as possible.