The long-awaited screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s generation-defining novel is a genuinely exhilarating cinematic event.
One of the most significant books of the 20th century, Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical second novel, On the Road was written – after several previously unsuccessful attempts, begun as early as 1948 – over a frantic few weeks between April 2 – 22, 1951. Upon its eventual publication in 1957, the novel was heralded by New York Times reviewer Gilbert Millstein as ‘the most beautifully executed, the clearest and the most important utterance yet made by the generation Kerouac himself named years ago as “beat”’.
It was an immediate best-seller, even though subsequent reviews were less than kind, describing the book as both ‘barbaric’ and ‘repetitive’. The novel’s success catapulted Kerouac to fame; the resulting attention helped kill him. He died of an internal haemorrhage caused by cirrhosis of the liver, aged just 47. But his legend – and the popularity of On the Road – lives on.
Long considered unfilmable due to its episodic nature and the unique appeal of Kerouac’s jazz-inspired prose, Brazilian director Walter Salles (Central Station) and screenwriter Jose Rivera (The Motorcycle Diaries) have successfully adapted Kerouac’s generation-defining novel for the screen in a film that is both dynamic and meandering – just like the book it’s based on.
On the Road tells the story of struggling writer Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s literary alter-ego, portrayed by Sam Riley, Control) and his intense friendship with the sexually voracious car thief Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund, TRON: Legacy, playing a character based on Neal Cassady).
Mourning the recent death of his father (one of several instances where Salles and Riviera have reinstated details from Kerouac’s original manuscript rather than adhere to the published edition of the book) Paradise joins Moriarty – who has also lost his father – and his uninhibited 16 year old bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart as Luanne Henderson) in their restless criss-crossing of the USA in search of insight and adventure.
The film, like most road movies, is episodic, occasionally frustratingly so, although the slow accretion of detail is ultimately rewarding. Scenes flash by rapidly, introducing us to such characters as eccentric junkie Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen in an inspired performance as William S. Burroughs) and his speed-freak wife Jane (Amy Adams, playing Burroughs’ unfortunate common-law wife, Joan Vollmer); a closeted businessman (Steve Buscemi) who Moriarty takes for a ride – literally; and Cassady’s much-put upon second wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst as Carolyn Cassady, author of the engaging memoir, Off the Road).
Featuring vibrant cinematography by Eric Gautier, the film is an evocative portrait of the Beat Generation, especially for those familiar with Kerouac’s life and work. An early scene, where the Kerouac figure, Paradise, bemoans his ‘awful feeling that everything [in the world] was dead’ includes a shot of a half-deflated football buried under a pile of books, referencing the younger Kerouac’s failed sporting career. Elsewhere, in one of the film’s most affecting emotional moments, Salles also acknowledges the sexual relationship between Moriarty/Cassady and poet Carlo Marx aka Allen Ginsberg (a somewhat larger than life Tom Sturridge), a detail which was censored from the published version of On the Road.
Particularly fascinating is the film’s depiction of the female members of the Beat Generation. Without any significant departures from the book, it nonetheless reinforces the strength of character required by women like Luanne Henderson to break away so completely from the social mores of their day, and simultaneously conveys the emotional devastation wreaked upon Carolyn Cassady by her marriage to the unreliable Neal. Women are central to the Beat narrative, but as Salles shows, because of the sexism of the period they were also peripheral; supporting characters in the men's lives. This powerful element of the film is conveyed visually – when female characters are introduced, they're often physically isolated or removed from the men: glimpsed behind doors or within separate rooms – as well as through the film’s structure, script and some superb performances.
Equally intriguing is a scene set in the Burroughs home which reminds us that, for all their self-created sexual freedoms, the members of the Beat Generation came of age at a time before the release of the Kinsey Report, when sex was often something for women to endure rather than enjoy, and the pleasures of oral sex were largely unknown and often taboo.
But it’s the men who are at the heart of On the Road, and Salles has cast his leads beautifully. As the Kerouac figure, Sal Paradise, Riley gives a beautifully internalised performance; sincere, focussed and equal parts shy and adventurous. But it’s Hedlund as Cassady/Moriarty who is the true star of the film. Whether literally dragging Paradise into a threesome with Marylou, or revealing the complexity of his character by talking about a suicide attempt one minute and an orgy the next, he is utterly convincing as Kerouac’s amoral, restless and remarkable hero.
One could perhaps criticise the film for lacking context, for failing to show more of the increasingly conservative, consumer-driven America that the Beats were rebelling against; conversely, the film’s characters are so caught up in their own wild lives that the outside world scarcely impacts upon them, save in a few brief scenes. And yes, the film becomes a trifle repetitive as its main characters cross and re-cross America on their endless journeys from coast to coast in search of dames, drugs and kicks; it’s faithful to the novel to a fault. It’s also one of the most exhilarating cinematic experiences of the year thanks to the astoundingly kinetic editing by François Gédigier, and Gustavo Santaolalla’s vibrant soundtrack.
Some audiences will find On the Road meandering and unengaging. For this reviewer – who is, admittedly, enamoured with the Beats, their lives and their writings – it’s one of the most enjoyable films of the year.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
On the Road
Director: Walter Salles
France/UK/USA/Brazil, 2012, 137 mins
Distributor: Icon Films
In cinemas September 27