For years, Jack Kerouac’s novel On the Road had been considered unfilmable. That hasn’t stopped people from trying ever since it was published in 1957 with Kerouac himself sending a letter to Marlon Brando asking the actor to star opposite him in a film version. It isn’t the style or the structure that makes the novel difficult to adapt but rather its iconic status as one of the signature books of the 1950s. Even more daunting is its status as a book that millions of people grew up reading, like The Catcher in the Rye. As a result, it has become a much beloved and cherished book for generations of readers. Anyone attempting to adapt Kerouac’s novel into a film faces the intimidating task of living up to the impossible expectations of legions of fans, not to mention somehow making people forget the equally iconic people the characters are based on – Kerouac and his famous friends, Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.
The path to an On the Road film has been littered with failed attempts from the likes of Francis Ford Coppola, Joel Schumacher, Brad Pitt, Billy Crudup, Colin Farrell, and Gus Van Sant, who were all attached at one time or another. Of all the people linked to the project, it was Coppola who has remained a constant over the years. He bought the rights in 1979 and has managed to steer it clear of Hollywood interference, finally picking Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) to direct. He saw it through a turbulent period where financing fell through and actors dropped out. He finally made and released the final product in 2012 with up-and-coming actors Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, and, oh yeah, a young actress you might have heard of – Kristen Stewart. On the Road debuted to a lackluster reception at the Cannes Film Festival prompting Salles to cut 13 minutes from the film in an effort to tighten things up and focus more on the two main characters – Sal Paradise (Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Hedlund).
On the Road is a fictionalized account of Kerouac’s numerous journeys across the United States between 1947 and 1950 when he met Neal Cassady, who would become the mythical character Dean Moriarty in the book. The film begins, literally, on the road with a shot of Sal Paradise’s feet walking on several different roads both during the day and at night. Rather interestingly, Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera’s angle with their adaptation is the theme of absent fathers and Sal and Dean’s yearning for theirs. Sal’s father dies before he first meets Dean and Dean’s elusive father is a semi-famous hobo in Denver who abandoned his family when his son was very young. So, the two men bond over a common missing element in their lives. This is established early on with Sal’s opening voiceover narration that quotes Kerouac’s original scroll manuscript before it was edited into the book most of us know and love: “I first met Dean not long after my father died. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death, my awful feeling that everything was dead.” By choosing to quote the scroll instead of the novel, Salles and Rivera are letting fans know that they’ve done their homework and understand the source material.
Sal meets Dean and his beautiful young wife Marylou (Stewart) as the dynamic couple land in New York City to meet a mutual friend. Sal is captivated by Dean’s infectious energy and considerable charisma. Garrett Hedlund does a fantastic job of conveying Dean’s insatiable hunger for learning and for experience. He’s willing to try almost anything once if only for the experience. The actor captures the mischievous glint in Dean’s eye. You can see why he is so initially attractive to people with his dynamic and fascinating personality. However, there are hints early on that he may not be all he’s cracked up to be, like how he glosses over breaking up with Marylou, which was so bad that she called the cops on him.
I will admit that when I first heard of Hedlund being cast as Dean I wasn’t sold on the idea, but after seeing him in the wildly uneven Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle Country Strong (2010), I could imagine him in the role. He was by and far the best thing in that film, bringing a natural charisma that made you want to watch him every time he came on screen. He brings that quality to Dean in On the Road.
Once I got past the fact that none of the actors in the film look like their real-life counterparts, I was able to settle in and enjoy the experience. Salles wisely did not try to go for people who resembled Kerouac and his friends (an impossible task) but rather actors that were able to capture the spirit of the characters in the book. Sam Riley, who was so good as Ian Curtis in Control (2007), is fine as Sal but plays him a little too passively than he comes across in the book. This is due in large part to the fact that Riley is often overshadowed by the more dynamic Hedlund.
For those worried about the presence of Twilight’s Kristen Stewart, you have nothing to fear. Given the strong material and an equally strong director guiding her, the actress sheds her trademark acting tics and affectations and disappears into her character. Freed from not having to carry a massive cinematic franchise, Stewart allows herself to have fun with the role. She is cast wonderfully against type as the sexually hungry Marylou. Despite her movie star status, Stewart only has a supporting role but she makes the most of it and one hopes that a part like this is a sign of things to come for the talented young actress.
While the film is mostly about Sal and Dean, a few of the supporting characters get their moments, chief among them is Carlo Marx a.k.a. Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) and a memorable extended cameo by Old Bull Lee a.k.a. William S. Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen). A perfectly cast Viggo Mortensen eerily channels Burroughs’ distinctive voice including his trademark drawl as he dispenses pearls of paranoid wisdom to Sal and Dean while Amy Adams grunges herself down as Bull Lee’s equally cryptic wife Jane. They play well off each other and leave us wanting to see more of this odd couple.
To say that On the Road plays like a collection of highlights from the book is not a criticism as the source material is episodic in nature. That being said, Salles’ film is made by and for fans of Kerouac’s novel, possibly alienating the uninitiated. For fans of the novel, your enjoyment of the film will probably be based on how many of your favorite passages made it into the final version as the ones that do are translated quite faithfully with significant chunks of Kerouac’s prose spoken verbatim in the frequent voiceover narration.
For me, it was great to see some of my favorite passages from Kerouac’s novel realized in the film, like Sal’s ride to Denver on a flatbed truck with a hobo by the name of Mississippi Gene and a hitchhiker named Montana Slim that is pretty much the way I imagined it, right down to Gene singing that great little blues song with everyone joining in all photographed during dusk by cinematographer Eric Gautier. None of these characters are identified in the film but fans of the book will recognize them immediately. This scene shows the camaraderie among fellow travelers. Another favorite bit is a brief scene that demonstrates Dean’s amazing ability to park cars on a dime while living in New York. Salles also manages to capture the energy and vitality of be-bop jazz in a sequence early on where Sal and Dean go see a jazz saxophone player in action (Terrence Howard) and we see Dean lost in the music, lost in the beat.
Salles’ film accurately depicts the initial rush of excitement that most of the characters experience with Dean and how this eventually gives way to anger and disappointment when he invariably lets them down in some way. For Sal, it’s disillusionment as Dean turns out not to be the mythic Western hero figure he had imagined but an irresponsible man who does what he wants, oblivious of how it might affect those around him and yet he still loves him like a brother because of the intense bond they developed on their adventures crisscrossing the country. Jose Rivera’s screenplay doesn’t shy away from showing Dean’s poor treatment of women, like how he neglects his wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and baby for trivial “kicks,” going out to a jazz club with Sal. The film also shows how he repeatedly cheats on her with Marylou and vice versa, eventually abandoning both. On his path for the ultimate thrill, he leaves a path of failed marriages and destroyed friendships. For Dean, nothing must get in the way of his voracious appetite – be it drink, drugs, women or the open road. He is the quintessential free spirit, a restless soul that burns like the roman candles Sal compares him to.
As far as films directly about the Beat Generation go, On the Road is best one to date. That’s not saying much when its competition consists mostly of failed efforts like Heart Beat (1980), The Last Time I Committed Suicide (1997) and Neal Cassady (2008), which were made by people who understood little about the Beats. Sure, there have been the rare exceptions that got it right, like Naked Lunch (1991) and Howl (2010), but I’ve always felt that the two best unofficial Beat Generation films were Robert Rossen’s adaptation of The Hustler (1961) and Gus Van Sant’s My Own Private Idaho (1991). The former managed to capture the run down, “beat” feeling that is often conveyed in Kerouac’s novels, while the latter brilliantly captures the allure of the open road and the search for a missing parental figure, in this case a mother. At that point in their respective careers, Rossen and Van Sant would have been ideal directors to tackle On the Road.
The attention to period detail is fantastic, from recreating 1940s New York City to the famous ’49 Hudson that Sal and Dean drive across the country. Right from the get-go, Salles immerses us in this time period with the help of jazz music from the likes of Slim Gaillard, Dinah Washington, Charlie Parker, and Dizzy Gillespie. The sets, locations, outfits and music all work together to provide us with a glimpse of that time as seen through Kerouac’s eyes. Rather interestingly, Salles and Rivera don’t shy away from the sex in On the Road as we see Dean with a variety of sexual partners over the course of film as does Sal, which includes his brief relationship with Terry, (Alice Braga), a beautiful Mexican woman he meets in California. The Beat writers were very passionate people and this included their sex lives.
The care and detail applied to every scene clearly demonstrates that this was a passion project for everyone involved. On the Road is not some sterile, impersonal studio film, but rather one made by people with a real affinity for the source material. Salles’ film captures the energy and excitement of Kerouac and his friends who shared a passion for literature and jazz. They lived for the moment, giving into their wildest urges as one sometimes does at that young age where you have your whole life in front of you and feel indestructible. They are the “mad ones” as Kerouac calls them in his book. This is certainly not a film for everyone and rightly so. What it does is perfectly capture the essence and spirit of the novel. It does this so faithfully that it may alienate the uninitiated but so be it. At least Salles has the conviction to pick a specific angle and go for it, making definite choices along the way instead of playing it safe.