At a modern-day nursing home, an elderly man, Duke, reads a romantic story from his notebook to a fellow patient.
In 1940s Seabrook Island, South Carolina, Noah Calhoun is smitten with seventeen-year-old heiress Allie Hamilton after seeing her at a carnival, and they have a summer love affair. Noah takes Allie to an abandoned house that he intends to buy for them. They try to make love, but are interrupted by Noah's friend Fin with the news that Allie's parents have the police looking for her.
When Allie and Noah return to her parents' mansion, Allie's mother Ann calls Noah trash and they ban her from seeing Noah. Noah walks out and Allie chases after him. The ensuing argument between the two ends in a break up and the next morning, Ann announces that the family is returning home to Charleston. Allie attempts to contact Noah, but is unable to find him, so she asks Fin to tell Noah that she loves him. When Noah gets the message he rushes to Allie's home, only to find the house empty.
Noah writes to Allie every day for a year but Allie's mother intercepts the letters and they never reach Allie. Noah enlists with Fin to fight in World War II, where Fin is killed in battle. Allie volunteers in a hospital for wounded soldiers, where she meets officer Lon Hammond Jr., a young lawyer who comes from old Southern money. The two become engaged, to the delight of Allie's parents.
When Noah returns from the war, his father has sold their home so that Noah can buy the abandoned house. While visiting Charleston, Noah witnesses Allie and Lon kissing at a restaurant; he convinces himself that if he restores the house, Allie will come back to him. Allie is startled to read in the newspaper that Noah has completed the house to the specifications she made years before.
Allie returns to Seabrook to find Noah living in the restored house. The two renew their relationship and make love. In the morning, Ann appears on Noah's doorstep, warning Allie that Lon has followed her to Seabrook. Ann reveals that in her youth she had been in love with a lower-class young man and still thinks of him. He admits that he has often thought of her as well. She then gives Allie the letters that Noah wrote to her, admitting that she hid them from Allie. Allie confesses to Lon that she has been spending time with Noah, and tells him she knows she should be with him, but she remains indecisive. Ultimately, she goes back to her relationship with Noah.
In the present, it is revealed that the elderly woman is Allie, who is suffering from dementia. Duke is actually Noah, and was told by Allie during the onset of her illness to reread their journals to help her remember. She briefly remembers who he is and they reconcile, but soon forgets and panics, forcing medical personnel to sedate her. Noah has a heart attack and is sent to the hospital while Allie is sent to a dementia ward in the hospital. He visits her room in the middle of the night, and she remembers him again, expressing that she may forget again. Noah reassures her that they can do anything with the love they share, and fall asleep together in Allie's bed, dying in their sleep with a nurse discovering them in the morning.
The film rights to Nicholas Sparks's novel were acquired by New Line Cinema in 1996, represented by producer Mark Johnson. Jeremy Leven was hired to write the script, which caught the attention of director Steven Spielberg in 1998, who wished to film it with Tom Cruise as Noah Calhoun. Spielberg's commitment to other projects led to Jim Sheridan becoming attached to direct the following year. Filming was to start in 1999 but pushed back over rewrites. Sheridan eventually backed out by October 2000 to work on In America. Martin Campbell entered negotiations to direct in March 2001, before he was replaced by Nick Cassavetes a year later.
Cassavetes wanted someone unknown and "not handsome" to portray Noah; he therefore cast Ryan Gosling in the role. Gosling was initially surprised by this: "I read [the script] and I thought, 'He's crazy. I couldn't be more wrong for this movie.' " "It gave me an opportunity to play a character over a period of time - from 1940 to 1946 - that was quite profound and formative." To prepare for the part, Gosling temporarily moved to Charleston, South Carolina prior to filming. During two months, he rowed the Ashley River and made furniture. A nationwide search was conducted to find the right actress to play Allie. Actresses who auditioned for the role included Jessica Biel, Britney Spears, Ashley Judd and Reese Witherspoon, and Rachel McAdams was ultimately cast. On casting her, Cassavetes said: "When Rachel McAdams came in and read, it was apparent that she was the one. She and Ryan had great chemistry between them." She commented: "I thought it would be a dream to be able to do it. I read the script and went into the audition just two days later. It was a good way to do it, because I was very full of the story." Gosling commented that, "I think that it's pretty fair to say that we probably wouldn't have made the film if we hadn't found Rachel...Really, Allie drives the movie. It's her movie and we're in it. It all kind of depended on an actress." In comparison to the book, the role was extended. McAdams spent time in Charleston before filming to familiarize herself with the surroundings, and took ballet and etiquette classes. She had a dialect coach to learn the southern accent.
The Notebook was filmed mostly on location in South Carolina, in late 2002 and early 2003, as well as the wintery battlefield just outside Montreal, Quebec. Production offices for the film were set up at the old Charleston Naval Base in North Charleston.
Much of the film's plot takes place in and around Seabrook Island, an actual town which is one of the South Carolina "sea islands." It is located 20 miles southwest of Charleston, South Carolina. However, none of the filming took place in the Seabrook area. The house that Noah is seen fixing up is a private residence at Wadmalaw Island, South Carolina, which is another "sea island" locality situated 10 miles closer to Charleston. The house was not actually in a dilapidated state at any time, but it was made to look that way by special effects in the first half of the film. Contrary to the suggestion in the film's dialogue, neither the house nor the Seabrook area was home to South Carolina Revolutionary hero Francis Marion, whose plantation was actually located some distance northwest of Charleston. The Boone Hall Plantation served as Allie's summer house.
Many of the scenes set in Seabrook were filmed in the town of Mt. Pleasant, (a suburb of Charleston). Others were filmed in Charleston and in Edisto Island. The lake scenes were filmed at Cypress Gardens (in Moncks Corner, South Carolina) with trained birds that were brought in from elsewhere.
The nursing home scenes were filmed at Rice Hope Plantation, located in Georgetown County, South Carolina. The college depicted briefly in the film is identified in the film as Sarah Lawrence College, but the campus that is seen is actually the College of Charleston.
The film premiered June 25, 2004, in the United States and Canada and grossed $13,464,745 in 2,303 theaters its opening weekend, ranking number 4 at the box office. The film grossed a total of $115,603,229 worldwide, $81,001,787 in Canada and the United States and $34,601,442 in other countries. It is the 15th highest-grossing romantic drama film of all time.
The Notebook received a mixed reaction from film critics. Based on 154 reviews on review aggregator Rotten Tomatoes, 52% of critics gave the film a positive review, with an average rating of 5.7/10 and the website's consensus stating "It's hard not to admire its unabashed sentimentality, but The Notebook is too clumsily manipulative to rise above its melodramatic clichés." At Metacritic, which assigns an average rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the film currently holds an average score of 53, based on 34 reviews, which indicates "mixed or average reviews."
Roger Ebert of the Chicago Sun-Times praised the film, awarding it three-and-a-half stars out of four, calling the photography "striking in its rich, saturated effects" and stating that the "actors are blessed by good material." Peter Lowry of Film Threat gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of five; praising the performances of both Gosling and McAdams, he wrote: "Gosling and especially McAdams give all-star performances, doing just enough to hand the reins over to the pros, who take what's left of the film and finish the audience off with some touching scenes that don't leave a dry eye in the house." About the film itself he added: "Overall, The Notebook is a surprisingly good film that manages to succeed where many other "chick flick" like romances fail."
Stephen Holden of The New York Times gave the film a positive review, stating that "the scenes between the young lovers confronting adult authority have the same seething tension and lurking hysteria that the young Warren Beatty and Natalie Wood brought more than 40 years ago to their roles in Splendor in the Grass." Ann Hornaday of The Washington Post also gave the film a positive review, she also praised the performances of Gosling and McAdams, stating: "Never mind that McAdams and Gosling don't for a minute call to mind 1940s America; they're both suitably attractive and appealing. Gosling, who delivered a searing and largely unseen screen debut performance in the 2001 drama The Believer, is particularly convincing as a young man who charms his way past a girl's strongest defenses." About the film, she added: "Audiences craving big, gooey over-the-top romance have their must-see summer movie in The Notebook." William Arnold of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer praised the performance of McAdams but criticized the performance of Gosling, stating that he "just doesn't have the kind of star power or chemistry with McAdams to anchor this kind of minor-league Gone with the Wind." He also added about the film that it "doesn't completely work on its own terms, mainly because its romantic casting just doesn't spark: It doesn't make us fall in love with its lovers." Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe gave the film two-and-a-half stars, praising the performances of its cast members, writing about McAdams that "she's soulfully committed to the suds in the story and fiercely attentive to the other actors". He added about Gosling: "Gosling is adept at playing sociopaths and intense brooders, and there's reason to think, early on, that Noah might be similarly off, as when he threatens to drop from a Ferris wheel unless Allie agrees to go on a date with him." About the film, he wrote: "Considering the sunny, relatively pleasurable romantic business that precedes it, the elderly stuff seems dark, morbid, and forced upon us."
Jessica Winter of The Village Voice gave the film a mixed review, stating: "Amid the sticky-sweet swamp of Jeremy Leven's script, Rowlands and Garner emerge spotless and beatific, lending a magnanimous credibility to their scenes together. These two old pros slice cleanly through the thicket of sap-weeping dialogue and contrivance, locating the terror and desolation wrought by the cruel betrayals of a failing mind." Robert Koehler of Variety magazine also gave the film a mixed review, he however, praised the performances, writing that "already one of the most intriguing young thesps, Gosling extends his range to pure romance without sacrificing a bit of his naturally subversive qualities, and even seems comfortable looking beautiful in a manly American way. The head-turner is McAdams, doing such a different perf from her top bitch in Mean Girls that it's hard to tell it's the same actor. She skillfully carries much of the film's emotional weight with a free and easy manner."
In June 2010, Entertainment Weekly included Allie and Noah in its list of the "100 Greatest Characters of the Last 20 Years." The periodical listed The Notebook in their 25 Sexiest Movies Ever. Us Weekly included the film in their list of the 30 Most Romantic Movies of All Time. Boston.com ranked the film the third Top Romantic Movie. The Notebook appeared on Moviefone's list of the 25 Best Romance Movies of All Time. Marie Claire also put the film on its list of the 12 Most Romantic Movie Scenes of All Time. In 2011, The Notebook was named the best chick-flick during ABC News and People's television special Best in Film: The Greatest Movies of Our Time. The scene where Noah climbs the Ferris Wheel because he wants a date with Allie made the list of Total Film's 50 Most Romantic Movie Moments of All Time. The kiss in the rain was ranked no. 4 in Total Film's 50 Best Movie Kisses list.
The Notebook was released on DVD on February 8, 2005 and Blu-ray on May 4, 2010. By February 2010, the film had sold over 11 million copies on DVD.
The soundtrack to The Notebook was released on June 8, 2004.
On August 11, 2015, it was reported that a television series is in development by The CW. The series will follow Noah and Allie's courtship following the events of the film, and in a post-WWII world.