"Dear John," directed with restraint by Lasse Hallstrom, stars Channing Tatum as John Tyree, a soldier home on leave in South Carolina who meets beautiful, do-gooder college student Savannah Curtis (Amanda Seyfried).
He is spending time surfing and with his reserved, shy father (Richard Jenkins) who seems happiest when lost in his coin collection.
John doesn't go into detail but a couple of hints, including a scar earned in a drunken knife fight, indicate a troubled past. Savannah, who doesn't smoke, drink or bed hop, is sharing a beach house with a gang of friends and building houses for charity.
In two weeks, John and Savannah fall in love, weather some bumps in the romantic road and promise to write once he is sent back overseas. They correspond by old-fashioned, handwritten letters, not the e-mail, text messages or Skype of today.
Events beyond their control shape their affair and, as the saying goes, life is what happens when you're busy making other plans.
Mr. Sparks also wrote the popular novels that inspired the teary romances "A Walk to Remember," "Message in a Bottle," "The Notebook" and "Nights in Rodanthe."
If forced to rank the movie adaptations, "The Notebook" would still be the champ with "A Walk to Remember" and "Nights in Rodanthe" at the bottom and "Dear John" and "Message" sandwiched in the middle.
Mr. Tatum and Ms. Seyfried make a lovely couple but they seem a little young for the soulmate classification.
A former model whose acting has gotten better with time, Mr. Tatum does the stoic and lovable lug role well. This is his story, especially because Ms. Seyfried's role has more colors and facets than she is allowed to show.
In fact, the (only) scene that moved me to tears is not between the young lovers but Mr. Jenkins and Mr. Tatum. It's heartbreaking and yet subtle.
Also noteworthy are Henry Thomas, once the wide-eyed boy in "E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial," as a longtime family friend and 6-year-old Braeden Reed as his autistic son. Braeden was located through a nonprofit agency called Carolina Autism and he brings high spirits and reality to the small role.
For those wedded to the text, screenwriter Jamie Linden tinkers with the story in a way that is understandable but removes the sting. In the end, though, I cannot say that "Dear John" won my head or my heart.