Somewhat forgotten adaptation of Beat generation author’s Jack Kerouac’s classic novel about the zeitgeist of post-war America in the 50s. On its realise On The Road received mixed reviews for several legitimate reasons; Kerouac’s novel is widely considered both a masterpiece of Beat literature and shows a ‘stream of consciousness’ first-person narrator that defies any translatable cinematic storytelling ; an attempt to dramatise a novel with no clear protoganist or plot, as a psuedo-fictionalised travalogue about a group of friends hitchhiking, might be problematic.
Kerouac’s style is more an experiment with prose and structure in terms of modernist literature than a coherent story or narrative; it is less about the ‘events’ or ‘story’than designed read as an experience – possibly intoxicated or sleepless – blending together thoughts and scenes against the gritty reality and iconic landscapes. The prose is poetic but the author’s voice is simple to read. So too are the characters, mostly caricatures of Kerouac’s close friends and peers; William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg and their wives. Kerouac’s method to writing he’d called ‘automatic-writing’, in that he would write on a continous roll of paper without stopping to check his work. Perhaps this aggressive, self-effacing style isn’t so diferent to that of Jackson Pollock’s method of painting, or Miles Davis playing jazz; a spontaneous, exhausting burst of feeling.
Reading the wikipedia page, other studio adaptations had been in the pipeline but never made it to production. It seems to have come after a resurgence of Hollywood arthouse projects, possibly linked to adaptations of similarly subversive novels such as Fight Club (1999), Before Night Falls (2000), Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas (1998), Trainspotting (1996), The Motorcycle Diaries (2004) and The Thin Red Line (1998). As a Hollywood genre, the period ‘road movie’ seems to find its revival every few years, such as with Hunter Thompson’s counterculture extravaganza Fear & Loathing, Almost Famous (2000), Walk the Line (2005), Yu Tu Mama Tambien (2001) and the Motorcycle Diaries (2004).
Perhaps it’s no surprise this film version fails to capture the essence of the novel – one that defies categorisation or analysis – or in presenting a compelling drama that stands on its own. It’s not terrible, but it just lacks the smell, intoxicating vibe and dizzy loss of place and time.
There’s little dialogue, and the characters and plot are thin to the point of cliche. The characters dance to music, they get drunk, they drive, they screw, they get bored, they argue, they feel sad and then they move to the next place, or breakup, which gives Kerouac, using his pseudonym ‘Sal Paradise’ (Sam Riley), something to romantise about in his writing.
Kerouac/Sal writes about the ‘mad’, the lost and the dissilluisioned youth searching for some deeper calling; it feels existential as they search for meaning against the dusty post-war industrialised landscape. The ‘Beat’ is Kerouac’s literary slang term for bored. Sal finds his muse in the form of an energetic, mercurial friend Neal Cassidy, aka ‘Dean Moriarty’, (Garrett Hedlund). A roughneck and drifter, his good-looks and charisma inspire Sal and his friend Allen Ginsberg, aka Carlo Marx, to party and hitchhike; although his mentor William Burroughs, aka Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen), dissapproves of what Sal sees in Neal, dismissing him as a false idol and rogue.
I’d read On The Road when I was seventeen, and although I enjoyed it and thought it beautiful, I could never grasp the meaning or subtext in the book, except that it captured the loneliness and longing for adventure and excitement that everyone feels no matter your age. This seems especially stong when you’re young and you have the desire to fall in love and see the world.
You could argue that seeing the world, experiencing it, picking fruit and sleeping rough, with no real plan or destination, except to make friends or meet old ones further down the road, and to fall in love and feel loved, or atleast fuck and listen to good music, is the real theme of the novel. Although there’s a sense of both being isolated in the present moment, or location, and contradictory feeling of time silently ticking away, the world moving on without you. The road.
Brazilian director Walter Salles had already adapted the arguably superior and similar Motorcycle Diaries, based on Che Guevara’s early life as a student. Like On The Road, it was about youth, adulthood, friendship, personal belief and escapism. Unfortunately, On The Road lacks any epiphany, drama or profoundness, the characters are simply bored, lonely, and often simply resort to sex, drinking and music to distract themselves from whatever’s bothering them. The characters lack the nobility, humour or insanity of the ones we’d seen in Motorcycle Diaries, Fear&Loathing or Yu Tu Mama Tambien. Ultimately, they just say goodbye before Sal goes back to his typewriter to express how bittersweet and beautiful life is.
Interestingly, Salle utilitises Sal’s voiceover from Kerouac’s novel by showing him narrate and write during the film’s narrative, making almost ‘meta-narrative’ in that it combines scenes from the novel with Kerouac/Sal writing On The Road. Perhaps this is its major flaw, neither a genuine adaptation of the novel nor a biopic about Kerouac.
Furthermore, Salle’s embellishes and inserts alot of dramatic scenes which were only glimpsed in the novel’s narrative. The love triangle and homoeroticsm between Dean, Marylou and Sal is more graphic and central, so too is the dysfunctional domestic scenes Dean has his with different wives and the poet Carlos Marx/Allen Ginsberg. Afterawhile it’s difficult to understand everyone’s fascination Dean Cassidy, despite his good looks, he comes across as sleazy and no more charming than Dirk Diggler in Boogie Nights, although the characters are in their early twenties. I just don’t remember the novel being this depressing.
Despite the downer vibe and lack of humour, the locations and photography are stunning, reminiscent of Terence Malick’s early films, perhaps having Francis Ford Coppola and his son Roman helped to achieve. It’s a good ensemble cast but they often feel wasted. Sam Riley looks miserable and plays Sal/Kerouac with an raspy New York accent, I don’t think Kerouac had. Garrett Hedlund is just creepy. Kristen Stewart is good as Marylou, but again looks extremely miserable. As does Elizabeth Moss, Kirten Dunst, Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen, although Steve Buscemi makes an awkward cameo a man offering them a ride, and who Dean later sodimizes for $20, but who still isn’t satisfied.