For a book that defined a generation, On the Road has waited a long time for a definitive screen adaptation. Jack Kerouac, who launched his literary career with this benzedrine-fuelled chronicle of the Beats, imagined the story as a movie from the moment it was published. In 1957, Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando suggesting he buy the rights and play the role of Dean Moriarty, while Jack himself would play Sal Paradise.
Brando would have been perfect as Dean, but he didn’t take up the suggestion. It seemed as if action was imminent in 1979 when Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights, ten years after Kerouac’s death, but nothing happened. Finally, in 2004, Coppola met up with Brazilian director, Walter Salles, who had enjoyed a worldwide hit with his film about Che Guevara, The Motorcycle Diaries.
Salles was a Kerouac fan and began researching the project with amazing thoroughness. He retraced the journeys undertaken in the book and tried to meet all the surviving models for the characters, along with their friends and relatives.
The elaborate production process is interesting, but the crucial issue is whether or not Salles has managed to make a movie that captures the spirit of the novel. On first impressions, although there are a few problems, it is a strong, successful adaptation – much better than I’d expected.
Perhaps the major reason On the Road has resisted Hollywood for so many years is Kerouac’s unusual narrative structure. Famously typed onto a long roll of paper in a three-week binge, the books eschews conventional ideas of a plot. It is a rave – a delirious narrative in which characters and events tumble over one another in manic succession. Kerouac’s intoxication with this life is transmitted to the reader who travels with Dean, Sal and the others as they pursue the Bohemian lifestyle back and forth across the country.
On the Road is a fable of fearless, carefree youth that fulfilled a fantasy for some readers and became a Bible for others. It is an American classic that still speaks vividly to young people. Aside from its brilliant evocation of a time and place, the book’s claim to literary greatness lies in the way the events described carry the seeds of their own annihilation. We keep moving but gradually grow weary, the spontaneity of youth giving way to a need for stability and security. These ideas, clichéd but painfully true, lurk in the background of Kerouac’s novel and Salles’s film.
Yet it would be wrong to dwell on the wistful subtext of On the Road. The seductiveness of the story lies in the personalities of the protagonists who are thinly disguised versions of real people. Dean Moriaty (Garrett Hedlund) is based on Neal Cassady, a charismatic, selfish, hyper-sexual, cavalier figure, who exerted an irresistable attraction on his friends. Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), is Kerouac, the aspiring writer who follows where Dean leads in the search for beatnik enlightenment. Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) is the poet, Allen Ginsberg, suffering from verbal diarrhoea, nurturing a homosexual passion for Cassady that was occasionally requited, almost as a favour. Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) is William S. Burroughs, heroin addict and author, heir to an adding machine company.
The two women in Dean’s life are Marylou (Kristen Stewart), based on wild child, LuAnne Henderson, whom Cassady married when she was only fifteen and divorced soon after; and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), based on his second wife, Carolyn, who endured his faithlessness and looked after his children while he went out in search of adventure.
With a film so completely rooted in character, casting is everything. While the acting is uniformly good it remains difficult to imagine Garrett Hedlund as Dean. Where Cassady was chiselled and macho, Hedlund is merely pretty. One might extend these queries to most of the cast, although Dunst and Mortensen seem perfect in supporting roles.
If one can make the necessary adjustment – which won’t be a difficult for anyone who has never read the book – there is a lot to admire in Salles’s painstaking production. He is excellent at capturing the ambience of the late 1940s, from the urban jazz clubs to the empty, rolling fields of the mid-west. The script is not laboured or wordy, with most of Kerouac’s descriptions being seamlessly translated into images.
Although the novel proceeds at a hectic pace, the movie has a spacious feel. This project has been a labour of love for the director, but it is partly a lament for a lost idyll. This is implicit in the books the characters read, notably a dog-eared copy of the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and a glimpse of Saul Bellow’s novel, Seize the Day. The characters live for the moment, seeking an intensity of experience known only as “it”. From Salles’s protracted exploration of that moment we are invited to draw our own morals – to see the melancholy that results from testing the limits of the mind and the senses.
On the Road, France/UK/USA/Brazil, rated MA 15+, 137 mins
Published by the Australian Financial Review, September 19, 2012