It’s been a long and winding road. First published in 1957, On the Road’s author Jack Kerouac sent a letter to Marlon Brando in that same year advocating that they star in a film version of the novel together. Due to an agent balls-up, Kerouac would have to wait for his quintessential novel of 1940’s beat generation culture to be adapted. Fast forward to 1979 and one Francis Ford Coppola purchases the rights 10 years after the author’s death. After hiring many screenwriters to create the screenplay, Coppola and his son Roman wrote their own draft. 16 years later in 1995, Coppola unsuccessfully tried to complete the project. Three more attempts failed but after seeing Motorcycle Diaries, Coppola knew director Walter Salles was his man. Salles had accomplished a magnificent feat with the depiction of Che Guevara’s early years and his mastery of the road-movie meant he had the perfect credentials. Turning the electric pace of the novel into a film is still a nigh on impossible task and very little of it is captured by Salles’ film. He has however created his own style for the film, one that is slower and more meditative, allowing more time for subtle analysis. Though never quite on the masterpiece level of the novel, the film is his and screenwriter Jose Rivera’s own interpretation of that unique generation, never attempting to replicate its source material and it is stronger for it. If you can put up with bloody Kristen Stewart (whose only aptitudes for securing the job seem to be her abilities to look young and slutty) throughout you may find this a rather enjoyable view.
Personal views about Stewart aside the acting on show here is a testament to great casting as well as passionate performance. Kerouac’s voice is heard through Sal Paradise played with subtle sincerity by Sam Riley, whose star is very much on the rise after Control (2007) and Brighton Rock (2010). A star is being born in the shape of Garret Hedlund whose prowess is drawing much acclaim. Being a relative unknown helps his case, meaning he can embody vibrant character Dean Moriarty more freely. These two as well as Viggo Mortensen’s short part as Old Bull Lee are expertly cast and performed but the same cannot be said for Kirsten Dunst, who plays Dean’s wife Camille. Although Dunst is a consummate professional, she seems out of place. She is a very familiar face amongst a sea of vibrant fresh newcomers and old stalwarts, a minor but noticeable error by the casting department.
Salles’ On the Road is a beautiful ode to the lush US landscape. Kerouac’s novel of beat generation travelling and living life every minute is filled with drink, drugs, dancing and women. Salles emulates this but utilises the visual aspect of his medium to great effect. Slowing the frenetic pace of Sal and Dean’s substance fuelled journeys around the States to scrutinise the characters. The camera peers deep into Moriarty’s eyes as he expunges his soul to Sal, Hedlund movingly exploring the weakness and insecurity of the man before jumping to his feet to tell more tales of sex, drugs and music. There is certainly more time to look deep into the souls of these men but the film does lose the impenetrable charm of the novel. Salles’ tale is being told as the Beat generation has become more irrelevant, the style of travelling championed by Kerouac is impossible today. His book may inspire travellers and so may Salles’ film, but in a totally different and less organic way. That being said, the director knows road movies and he exacts the perfect pace for the film, spending just the right amount of time in each place, never lingering.
While it is would have been unworkable to replicate Kerouac’s novel without emulating some of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Salles and his team have created something good by its own merits. Hedlund may not capture the enigmatic Dean Moriarty completely but it is hard to imagine an actor who could. This On the Road feels more reflective and so it should given the decades that have passed since the novel’s publishing. Although nothing spectacular, On the Road as a film is still an entertaining and enlightening viewing but more like a fun history class than the frenzied party train cult novel.
Follow Jonny on Twitter @joffglen https://twitter.com/joffglen