The 10 Greatest Love Stories of All Time

August 31, 2009

Are women unrealistic in their expectations of love? Do we demand so much from men that none can ever hope to measure up? What is the love that we dream of as girls, and can we ever really find it?

My own views of love were undoubtedly shaped, at least in part, by the many books I read and movies I watched as a girl. Like most women, I’ve never outgrown my appetite for a great love story. Thinking about my favorites of all time, I realized that a common theme is sacrifice, even death. The greatest, most enduring loves are often doomed, and the tragedy fuels the passion.

Is this just the stuff of fiction, or is it possible that a real man could love one woman for all eternity?

Here’s a letter written by Sullivan Ballou to his wife Sarah shortly before the Battle of Bull Run in 1861. It’s from Ken Burns’ The Civil War, and it never fails to move me:

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sa2hv8U8cWU


This kind of love does exist, it is real. It is not rare!

Hold out for the real thing.

While you’re waiting, and you have a few lonely Friday nights to kill, here are my Top 10 love stories of all time:

1. Wuthering Heights, Emily Bronte

An unpolished and devastating epic of childhood playmates who grow into soul mates, but are separated by class and cruelty. Heathcliff and Cathy believe they’re destined to love each other forever, and when she dies in childbirth he begs her spirit to remain on earth forever, to haunt him and drive him mad.

The 1970 film adaptation starring Timothy Dalton had me in an adolescent swoon, but I’ve also enjoyed the book while nursing a broken heart.

2. Casablanca, 1943

Two years after running out on him in Paris and breaking his heart, Ilsa visits Rick’s nightclub in the company of her husband, WWII Resistance leader Victor Lazslo. Ilsa and Rick are still very much in love, but Rick sacrifices her to Lazslo, for the good of the war effort. He tells her, “We’ll always have Paris.”

This film contains so many memorable characters and scenes, it’s much more than a love story. Ingrid Bergman is radiant, and her chemistry with Humphrey Bogart is surprisingly intense.

3. Romeo and Juliet/West Side Story

Forbidden love between young people from warring clans ends tragically in death. In R&J, Romeo kills himself rather than live without Juliet, who he mistakenly believes has died.

Franco Zeferelli’s 1968 version of Romeo and Juliet was lovely. I’m also a big fan of Baz Luhrmann, and his modern interpretation was interesting. West Side Story is a great film, focusing on the senseless bigotry that separates the lovers.

4. Titanic, 1997

Jack Dawson and Rose DeWitt Bukator fall in love aboard the Titanic a couple of days before it sinks. The two are inseparable until the bitter end, when Jack stays in the water, giving Rose the only spot on a makeshift raft. She survives, changes her name to Rose Dawson and lives her long life as a tribute to Jack. She said, “He loved me in every way that a person can be loved.”

I absolutely adored Kate Winslet and Leonard diCaprio in this film. In fact, I was such a sucker for this movie that I purchased “My Heart Will Go On” on itunes.

5. Roman Holiday, 1953

Gregory Peck plays newspaper reporter Joe Bradley, who finds a beautiful young woman (Audrey Hepburn) asleep on a park bench in Rome and takes her home. She turns out to be a runaway princess, and Joe plans to write an exclusive story about her for his paper. But the two fall in love during their one crazy day together, and Joe realizes he cannot exploit her. Princess Anne must return to her people, and Joe attends her final press conference, heartbroken.

The only story in my top 10 where the love doesn’t get consummated, it is nonetheless a totally believable love. You know that Joe and Princess Anne will never forget each other.

6. Jane Eyre, Charlotte Bronte

A newly employed governess, Jane falls for the dark and difficult Mr. Rochester. At their wedding, Jane discovers that he is already married to a crazed woman who lives in the attic. She flees, but one night hears Mr. Rochester calling her name over the moors. She returns to find him blind and missing a hand, the result of a fire set by the mad Mrs. Rochester. They marry and live happily ever after. He even regains sight in one eye, allowing him to see their newborn son.

I loved the 1996 film starring William Hurt and Charlotte Gainsbourg (directed by Franco Zeferelli), but my absolute favorite is the 2006 BBC miniseries, which rachets up the sexual tension very successfully. Don’t miss the book though, it’s a must read.

7. Bridges of Madison County, 1995

Meryl Streep plays Italian housewife Francesca Johnson whose family is away at the Iowa State Fair. Robert Kincaid (Clint Eastwood) is a National Geographic photographer who comes to town to photograph Rosamunde Bridge, and the two fall hopelessly in love. They have four perfect days before Francesca’s family is due to return, and they live every moment for each other. Though they never see each other again, Robert wears her locket for the rest of his life, and asks to have his ashes scattered at the bridge where they fell in love. Years later, she requests the same of her own children in her will, stating that she gave herself to their father in life, but wishes to spend eternity with Robert in death.

The book is one of the worst I’ve ever read, but Clint Eastwood does absolutely incredibly things with the movie. I make a point of watching this at least once a year. An absolute favorite.

8. Moulin Rouge, 2001

Ewan McGregor plays a young poet named Christian who arrives in Paris, where he falls for a prostitute and performer at the Moulin Rouge named Satine (Nicole Kidman). As the film progresses, we become aware that Satine is dying of tuberculosis. A year after her death, Christian writes their story, fulfilling his final promise to her, saying, ““The greatest thing you’ll ever learn is just to love and be loved in return.”

Another film from Baz Luhrmann, charming and compelling. Ewan McGregor is to die for (no pun intended).

9. Tristan and Isolde, 2006

Tristan is an English soldier wounded during a battle in Ireland. He is secretly nursed back to health by the Irish king’s daughter Isolde and the two fall deeply in love. He returns to England, and in time the Irish king decides to give his daughter in marriage to Lord Marke, a close friend of Tristan’s. Tristan must watch as his true love marries another, and in time the separation is too much for Tristan and Isolde to bear. They begin to see each other secretly, and are inevitably discovered. They risk everything for one last moment in each other’s arms.

This film is a retelling of a medieval romantic legend, based on Wagner’s opera. All I can say is that James Franco as Tristan is super hot. I would have thrown it all away for him, too.

10. Persuasion, Jane Austen

At the age of 19, Anne Elliot was persuaded to reject the proposal of her love Frederick Wentworth, a young man with insufficient financial prospects for a woman of good breeding. Eight years later, Wentworth returns as a naval Captain, having made his fortune in the Napoleonic Wars. At 27, Anne is a spinster, and loves him still. He is still smarting from the earlier rejection, and she must watch as he courts someone new. In the end, though, it’s no use. Capt. Wentworth still loves her and this time she accepts his proposal.

Love the book, it’s such a good read. In fact, it inspired me to visit Bath, England a few years ago. The 1995 BBC film is very, very good. Amanda Root and Ciaran Hinds are perfect in it, in part because neither one is beautiful. The British have always done this really well – hiring their actors for talent rather than just looks. No flaky Cameron Diaz playing Miss Anne Elliot here.

It was very difficult culling this list to just 10 stories. If you have a favorite, please share it!

  • Decoybetty

    When Harry Met Sally is definitely up there for me. and Sense and Sensibility. I think Say Anything…is a pretty adorable love story as well.

    I like my love story with a large amount of funny (ex. Knocked Up).

  • morning_glory

    Though it is an animated film, I adore The Corpse Bride. All about sacrificing yourself for the happiness of the other person. Wuthering Heights is one of my favorite books since I was a child. There's also a very beautiful story written by Chejov: Lady with Lapdog. And I'm trying really hard to think of one with a happy ending, but today I can't because I spent last night putting an end to one of my own stories (the guy that's the reason I started learning something from this blog is turning out to be really hard to let go…)

  • susanawalsh

    All excellent suggestions. Lloyd Dobler is perhaps the most charming loser leading man in the history of romantic storytelling.

  • susanawalsh

    Thanks, morning glory, I haven't seen The Corpse Bride, can't wait to check it out. And you get bonus points for recommending Chekhov!

    Oh boy, Mr. FWB is still on the scene? You promised to stay out of that labyrinth! Has he changed his tune? Because if not, I'm putting my money on the MD!

  • morning_glory

    Kind of hard to change my black sheep's ways. I'm really truly sorry I didn't kept my promise (well, most of the time it was still pretty awesome). I always end up learning things the hard way. Because despite my best efforts, I fell really hard for him. But I do know now that this is the end of the road. Besides the MD really deserves a chance. So far he has being really great.

  • http://talesfromabarstool.wordpress.com/ Tales From A Bar Stool

    Roman Holiday is one of my favourites! The chemistry between Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn is indisputable. I've been meaning to see Tristan and Isolde and the Bridges of Madison County for years.. i've got to get on that…
    But what about An Affair to Remember? The Way We Were? I'm tearing up just thinking of them…

  • susanawalsh

    I was just teasing you, I didn't mean to be too harsh. It is very, very hard to move on when you are really into someone. And the way I look at it, you will stop doing that when it doesn't feel good to do it anymore. Either when someone else matters more, or when the morning after feels so bad it's just not worth it. In any case, I'm glad there is a new guy on the scene.

  • susanawalsh

    Yes, An Affair to Remember is way up there. Notorious with Cary Grant and Ingrid Bergman is also great; one of my favorite Hitchcock movies. And I loved the Way We Were, except of course I was so disappointed that they didn't make it as a couple.

  • Screwtape

    Personally, my favorite has always been Ladyhawke. Imagine constantly being in the presence of your Lover, but not being able to communicate in any way? And the ending was a wonderful example of why you should not lose hope.

  • susanawalsh

    Oooohhh, I have to see that. I was not familiar with it, so I went to IMDb to check it out. It looks really good, definitely seems to have plenty of stuff guys like but also an incredible love story. Don't know how I missed this one!

  • morning_glory

    I guess nobody ever makes it with Robert Redford, not even Meryl Streep in Out of Africa. I mean, if she can't, then it's not possible. That's what I find so desperately irresistible about him: he never really belongs to the girl, he just make them deliriously happy for a while and them he's gone.

  • morning_glory

    The way you look at it is exactly the same way I've been looking at it :) Haha, why is being young, careless, irresponsible and horny so damn exciting? I guess that why the greatest part of the love story is when the couple just thinks: screw all the rest, and they go with the moment… Well, the second greatest part: I'm a huge sucker for happy endings. And one of the greatest happy endings for me is Juno, especially because the movie is about different of kinds of love, not the tragic kind, but the ones that bring meaning to our lives.

  • wookie

    I highly recommend the Japanese short animated movie called “5cm per second”. The title refers to an analogy where the protagonist's childhood sweetheart compares people to falling flower blossoms that slowly intersect and depart and hopefully intersect once more. As you might guess from that description, the movie deals with the one issue of that no one wants to deal with: letting go. I'm not going to spoil the ending but it's a beautiful contemporary of the old classics.

  • http://FT.com/ VJ

    In order of appearance, (roughly):

    “The Tale of Genji”

    Ovid's Art of Love: Classic Rules of Seduction

    Ovid's Ars Amatoria 2

    Tristan and Isolde

    Eloise and Abelard

    'The Infernal Marriage', Benjamin Disraeli

    Jane Eyre

    The Mystery of Edwin Drood

    Jude the Obscure, (T. Hardy)

    Ethan Frome.

    Annie Get your gun!

    (Evidently if it's not made into a movie, we'll soon forget it). Cheers, 'VJ'

  • susanawalsh

    I love Juno! Yes, the happy romantic ending is lovely – I adore the duet they sing on the steps. But there are many great portraits of love in that movie: Juno's father's love for her, her dad and stepmom's love for each other, Jennifer Garner's love for Juno's unborn baby. Even Juno's love for the baby. Such a good film.

  • susanawalsh

    That sounds great, I've just put it in my Netflix queue. Thanks for suggesting.

  • susanawalsh

    Very interesting list! The Tale of Genji is the first novel, ever, right? I've wanted to read Eloise and Abelard forever – such passionate love without sex! I'm also intrigued by the Disraeli…As for Ethan Frome, I do not consider that a good love story! Ugh, what a downer! Lots of good ideas, here, VJ, thanks.

  • megslife

    One of my all time favorites. I also find it the most realistic and it brings up the idea of timing. Sometimes you meet the person you are meant to be with but not at the right time. I always think that this would be the best kind of story. I love the ending when they talk about their wedding. I also think that the whole speech Harry has at the end can be applied to so many things in life not just love.

  • megslife

    I'll add to the list…
    Love Story “Love means never having to say your sorry.”
    When Harry Meet Sally
    Love Actually ( I know lots of love stories not sure if it fits the list)
    A Lot Like Love
    Broken English
    Pride And Prejudice (Lets be honest anything Jane Austen)
    Ever After
    500 Days of Summer (a must see amazing not love love story)

    there are lots more… I think I need guy friends so I am not always renting chick flicks.

  • susanawalsh

    There's a great line in WHMS that shows the difference between men and women. A few weeks after they sleep together, Sally complains that it doesn't mean anything to him. Harry replies, yes it does mean something, but why does it have to mean everything?

  • susanawalsh

    A GREAT movie is Starter for 10, a thoroughly charming English movie that starred James McAvoy in one of his first roles. He's beyond adorable, and it's a great story. My daughter and I both loved it.

  • susanawalsh

    There's a great line in WHMS that shows the difference between men and women. A few weeks after they sleep together, Sally complains that it doesn't mean anything to him. Harry replies, yes it does mean something, but why does it have to mean everything?

  • susanawalsh

    A GREAT movie is Starter for 10, a thoroughly charming English movie that starred James McAvoy in one of his first roles. He's beyond adorable, and it's a great story. My daughter and I both loved it.

  • Mayra

    Another great love story is Muneca Brava. It’s an Argentinian soap opera and has lots of drama as most soap operas uasually do. The main characters are Ivo and Milagros. Everbody tries to ruin their love because they are from different social classes. Milagros is a servant in the mansion La Soledad. Her boss is Federico Di Carlo who is Ivo Di Carlo’s dad, so that is why they try to separate them because she is servant and he is the bosses’ son.
    The soap opera is being uploaded on cladizzle18 channel and also has english subtitles for people who don’t speak spanish. It’s a great love story and I recommend anyone to watch it. It was extremely popular in Argentina and many other countries.

    • http://intensedebate.com/profiles/susanawalsh susanawalsh

      Mayra, thank you, that is a great suggestion! I love finding great dramas from other countries. The theme of lovers from different social classes is a popular one, and the solution is never easy. I'll be interested to see how this turns out!

  • Mayra

    The channel cladizzle18 can be found on youtube.

  • Lonely Law Student (I hope you know who this is…)

    I have a controversial love story to add Casanova and Henriette (i know, casanova???), but it is one of the most heart wrenching stories of love and loss and spending the rest of life closing up his heart and letting down his breeches

    • http://www.hookingupsmart.com Susan Walsh

      Haha, I think I do know who this is! Does the name Tashmoo mean anything to you?
      I’ll have to check this out – I’ve never read Casanova. Sounds like a page-turner though!

  • Leroy Sutton

    I have been watching alot of movies dealing with love. I highly recommend Wuthering Heights, An affair to remember, The African Queen, Houseboat, and the Notebook…to name a few. As you can tell, these are mostly oldies. I like the older ones, because the time seemed so innocent in those days….but every once in awhile i’ll find one that is more recent like The Notebook, or The Bridges of Madison County. I really like your choices by the way. I am gonna have to check out Roman Holiday after reading your review. If you have any more reviews of ones that did not make the list, i would definitely love to hear from ya. Thanks!

  • http://www.hookingupsmart.com Susan Walsh

    @Leroy Sutton

    All great suggestions! African Queen is great – though I’ll never forget those leeches! Houseboat is also wonderful. I remember watching a movie once when I stayed home sick from school. It was called Saratoga Trunk, and was a real oldie even then. I fell for Gary Cooper watching that movie. The Notebook of course is a contemporary classic – that relationship is what every woman wants (unfortunately).

  • Amy

    I am so glad I found this site.Thanks for all suggestions.Also, To Dance withe the white dog–Jessica Tandy.Get tissues ready!!I have only seen it on Hallmark VHS,though.Also,The Ghost and Mrs.Muir!!Love your site.Glad to know I fit in with you romantics!!!

    • http://www.hookingupsmart.com Susan Walsh

      @Amy
      Welcome, thanks for commenting! I haven’t seen the Jessica Tandy film, but will do so. Check out more recent posts and join the discussion!

  • Leroy Sutton

    Hi Susan. I had just finished watching Roman Holiday and had to give two thumbs up. I really enjoyed that movie. I’m surprised i haven’t heard of it, since i am a fan of Gregory Peck. He is such a good actor….and Audrey Hepburn, wow!!!! I really love watching these old classics. I haven’t been able to find Saratoga Trunk though….I’ll definitely keep an eye out for that one. There is two i would like to add, if by chance you haven’t seen them yet. Vertigo. It’s one of my favorite movies of all time. It’s directed by A. Hitchcock. It stars James Stewart and Kim Novak. It’s more along the lines of a psychological thriller, but there is a love theme there….. and also The English Patient. I am willing to bet you may have seen this one. It has won alot of awards….I believe best picture. I always get teary eyed when Almásy carried Katharine to the cave of the swimmers and he notices she is wearing the thimble he gave her. That movie gets me everytime..hahaha. oh well, i’m not ashamed. Well, thanks so much for the reply, and i will definitely drop in from time to time to see if there are any more movies i haven’t seen. Thank you!

  • http://www.hookingupsmart.com Susan Walsh

    @Leroy
    Vertigo is my favorite Hitchcock film! I absolutely love it. My husband’s favorite is Notorious, which is also a great love story, I highly recommend it. Glad you liked Roman Holiday, that may be my favorite Audrey H movie. Yes, the English Patient was heartbreaking, a very good love story.

  • ClaudiaM.

    If I look up from my laptop over to my book/DVDshelf here’s the first things I see:

    DVD’s: Casablanca, Juno, Pretty in pink (I know, silly but I love John Hughes!) and Notting Hill.

    Novels: Brida by Paulo Coelho; great story about a woman who practices witchcraft and is trying to find her soul mate trough it, the only problem is she finds two…

    Wicked by Gregory Maguire; I loved both the musical and novel, mostly because they’re totally different. The love story in the novel is one of my favorite parts it’s deeper, HOTTER, darker and it’s what eventually drives her mad.

  • http://www.hookingupsmart.com Susan Walsh

    @Claudia M
    Good choices! I’ve never read Brida, but will check it out. I loved Wicked, and agree that the book is very different from the show. Actually, the press conference scene near the end of Notting Hill is very similar to the end of Roman Holiday.

  • Meggggggie

    I would have to say one of my favorites is The Notebook. Hands down its an amazing movie and a well written book.

  • Joan Dobbs

    The most beautiful love story of this generation is between Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden and Daniel Westling, a commoner from the Middle Class who became the princess’ personal trainer and lover. After six years together, the Princess announced her plans to marry him.

    When the King, her father, witheld his permission, fearing the cultural gap between them was too great, the Princess made it known that she would defy her father and marry him anyway.

    As the future queen of Sweden, she would have automatically forfeited her right to the throne if she married without the king’s permission. Only then did the King relent, Daniel was schooled for two years by special tutors, and on June 19, 2010 Crown Princess Victoria married her Daniel.

    You can see videos on youtube of their glamorous state marriage. Don’t miss Daniel’s speech to his bride at the wedding banquet. It is a highlight.

  • Jennifer

    Beautiful, Susan! I love your realism and optimism about real love and waiting for it! :) :)

    Oh and let’s see: “Anna and the King” is awesome. The ONLY story I know where they never even say “I love you”, yet it’s clear. Dang, it’s wonderfully clear and tough.

    Also, “Fireproof” and “No Greater Love” :)

  • http://kikyohatake.tumblr.com kikyohatake

    I adore Spirited Away though it’s animated. I find it a really good well written love story.

  • RANA

    gone with the wind, love story, sweet november, i have got mail, titanic, autumn in newyork, shakespear in love, Bridges of Madison County,notebook,

  • kaboom_baby

    Pyramus and Thisbe needs to be on here! Glad to see Ovid’s Ars Amatoria mentioned but that’s more of a Classical version of The Game.

  • http://Hookingupsmart Shasiti

    Emma aaand theres a Native American one I just love Stolen Women Captured Hearts

  • http://Hookingupsmart Shasiti

    Emma and Stolen women Captured Hearts is awesome!!

  • JD

    After reading the criteria for what the author believes makes the perfect love story, I was amazed to not see The English Patient in this list. Whilst this is a very good list, I am amazed Moulin Rouge and Titanic were selected instead (even though they are very good).

  • Christine

    I have my own love story:

    I have been a friend of his mother for 2 decades and have watched him grow from boy to man.
    He dated my daughter for a short time when he was 18.
    I always thought of him as a lovely lad but nothing more.
    One day after 28 years of marriage, my husband told me he no longer loved me, and I was distraught beyond belief.
    My lovely friend found out about my failing marriage and sent me a message asking if I was OK, and I told him that my husband had become aggressive towards me, to try and get me out of the marital home. My friend quickly arrived at my door, begging me to pack my cases and that he would take care of me.
    And he did just that! Cradling me in his arms all night, as I grieved for the loss of my marriage.
    Time moved on, and once the dust had settled, I still kept in touch with my friend. Actually, he often got in touch or visited me. Then one day, I realised that I was beginning to fall in love with him. So I got up the nerve to tell him, but his reaction was that we were friends and that’s how it was. His words didn’t seem to match his behaviour. We made love a couple of times, and I knew this was so wrong, but we were swamped with feelings. I am 48, he is 32!! Imagine what his mother or my daughter would say, how could we do this to them.
    I tried so hard to stay away. For 7 months I never saw him in person, but would keep in touch via texts and messages.
    One evening, with the word “platonic relationship” planted in my brain, I invited him for a coffee.
    As soon as he came through the door, his arms were open wide and we hugged. We spent 5 hours, right into the early hours of the morning, just chatting and laughing….nothing more.
    Then when it was time to leave, he turned to hug me at the door. This time he nuzzled his head into my shoulder, and I knew he was taking in the scent of my hair and my body. He lingered for a while, sighing all the time.
    My heart broke into hundreds of thousands of shards, and I realised that we were meant to be together, but to save hurting our loved ones, this would be ………the love story that never was.
    Every word of this is true and I each day gets harder to survive without him.

  • Roger H Frost

    Was there a true love in days gone by with the names of Chloe and Melen….. The second name eludes me. Quite a story ….

    I have been researching for a while. God Bless

  • http://www.partytravelsexlove.com Party Travel Sex Love

    I just found your site and this is the first post I went to. I’ve seen most of the movies you mentioned. I also plan to do a similar post on my site about movies. Your list centers around the classics. I also have Wuthering Heights and Casablanca on my list. I think that the Lawrence Olivier and Merle Oberon verion is my favorite. I’ve seen 3 of the 7 versions and plan to see them all. Casablanca everyone should see it and owned by everyone. I wasn’t moved by Bridges of Madison County so maybe it is more of a chick flick. How have these moves been received by people in their 20s?