Love Story (1970)
Written by: Erich Segal
Directed by: Arthur Hiller
Starring: Ali McGraw, Ryan O’Neal, John Marley, Ray Milland, Russell Nype, Katharine Balfour, Sydney Walker, Tommy Lee Jones (credited as Tom Lee Jones)
Whenever the topic of whether a movie adaptation of a popular book, be it fiction or non-fiction, is superior or inferior to its words-on-paper source, more often than not the majority opinion seems to favor the literary rather than the celluloid version.
Take, for instance, the four movies based on novels by the late Tom Clancy. As films, they all work rather well and are exciting, suspenseful, and nicely-plotted action-adventure crowd pleasers with some serious thoughts on the use and abuse of power by the White House, the various intelligence agencies, and the U.S. military establishment.
As faithful adaptations of the novels, though, the four Jack Ryan films are less fondly regarded, and after the mind-bending, chronology-twisting transformation of The Sum of All Fears from a pivotal mid-series novel into a cinematic “prequel,” it’s obvious why the latest incarnations – Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit and Amazon’s Jack Ryan TV series are hard reboots of the Ryanverse and not adaptations of Clancy’s novels.
There are, however, several 1970s-era films based on bestselling novels that are way better than than their literary parents: Francis Ford Coppola’s The Godfather, Steven Spielberg’s Jaws, and Arthur Hiller’s Love Story.
Based on the best-selling novel by Erich Segal, this 1970 tearjerker stars Ali McGraw as Jennifer Cavalieri, a bright college student majoring in music at Radcliffe, and Ryan O’Neal as Oliver Barret IV, the hockey-playing, law school student scion of a wealthy New England family.
Like David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia, Segal’s story is essentially a long flashback that tells us, from the very “git go” that Jenny has passed away:
Oliver Barrett IV: What can you say about a twenty-five-year-old girl who died? That she was beautiful and brilliant? That she loved Mozart and Bach, the Beatles, and me?
Segal’s screenplay – which, like Star Wars a few years later, was adapted into a novelization before the movie was released – is an example of elegant simplicity at its best. Boy with money meets girl with brains and looks but very little money, they bicker, have a cute courtship, run into objections from Oliver Barrett III (Ray Milland), get married, argue, reconcile, then she dies.
There is, of course, a bit more to this, but Segal’s script isn’t so much about the plot points – which are variations of old romantic literary and cinematic themes (lovers-separated-by-death, the nature of love, and even love-blurs-the-social divide) – but rather about the characters and how they relate to each other.
And here is where the true magic of Love Story lies; director Hiller (who also directed one of my favorite romcoms, Silver Streak) gets top-notch performances from the cast, most notably the trio formed by Ali McGraw, Ryan O’Neal, and the formidable leading man-turned-character actor Ray Milland. Only a canny director and thespians with a feel to what makes these characters tick inside could have lifted Segal’s otherwise superficial and bromide-laden script to a level of quality that has made Love Story such an enduring and well-regarded film.
McGraw, who was married to Paramount Pictures exec Robert Evans at the time, portrays the savvy, sassy, family-oriented Jennifer brilliantly. We truly believe that she feels an all-consuming passion for “Preppie” (her nickname for Oliver the Fourth), and we sense her failure to really understand the emotional rift between the older and younger Barretts, particularly since her own relationship with her father is so close and uplifting. It is Jennifer who tries to teach Oliver the film’s oft-quoted and oft-ridiculed tag line, “Love means never having to say you’re sorry,” and it’s her love for life and music that are her legacy.
Although Ryan O’Neal would have a longer filmography than McGraw, the Golden Boy who plays the privileged law student who’s willing to be disinherited over his love for Jenny was at the zenith of his acting career, with only a few really good leading man roles ahead of him before he faded into character acting status. His Oliver is in turns likeable and totally obnoxious, particularly when he gets into arguments with or about his dad. Endearing and petulant, giving yet self-absorbed, O’Neal’s character isn’t a one-dimensional, one-note-Johnny but rather a complex and realistic guy.
Also memorable (if maybe a bit too saccharine-laden for my taste) is French composer Francis Lai’s musical score, which includes the well-known title tune, “Theme from Love Story.” While it’s a bit skitchy at times, Lai’s music does a terrific job of adding emotional weight to even the most frivolous bits of the Jenny-Oliver story.
On the whole, while it is an emotionally manipulative film designed to make even tough-boiled guys in the audience reach for a bunch of Kleenex, Love Story is a wonderful film to watch, preferably in a dimly lit living room or bedroom, with a spouse or “significant other” at your side, a bowl of popcorn in the middle, and, yup, a box of tissues within easy reach.
 Well, not really. Segal wrote the script first, but Paramount Pictures wanted a novelization out in bookstores in advance to “test the waters,” so he adapted Love Story into a novel that was, providentially, published in advance of the film’s release.