Like many young intellectuals yearning for something deeper in their lives, I have turned to Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel, On the Road, for inspiration. One of the defining pieces of “beat” literature, On the Road is one of the most important American novels of the 20th century and its portrait of young Americans without purpose or direction has carried a romantic power to millions of disaffected youth since it was first released in 1957. However, unlike many of my contemporaries who have read Kerouac’s classic novel and viewed it as a romanticized ode to life on the road and freeing one’s self from the shackles of society, I interpreted On the Road to be a deeply sad and lonely evocation of the desperation that has consumed young people when we’ve found ourselves freed from whatever ties we imagine society has bound upon us but have yet to find any actual meaning within our own lives outside of evading those strictures.
I took that view of the novel because deep down, there are no happy characters in the book. The closest you get is Dean Moriarty (later on, famous real life Merry Prankster, Neal Cassady, in real life: see The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test). But even Dean’s manic joie de vivre masks a complete lack of any meaning in his life and a total inability to care about anyone but himself in any sort of real or meaningful way. Dean is a product of pure, selfish, destructive id. And everyone else, from Sal to Carlo to Marylou to Camille, are wandering around in an existentialist fugue hoping that the next great adventure will provide them with a sense of purpose. And, that sense of purpose never comes until, at last, Sal is able to wash away the idealistic facade he’s built around himself and his relationship with Dean Moriarty. And this understanding that On the Road is a tremendously sad and introspective work is probably the only thing that the 2012 film adaptation gets right.
I didn’t read On the Road until fairly recently so I had known about the plans for the movie for a while, but had I read the book without knowing there was a movie coming out, I would have made the argument that On the Road was unfilmable, and Walter Salles’ film adaptation does little to make me think I’m wrong in that supposition. What makes On the Road succeed certainly isn’t it’s narrative structure which, sprawling as it is, is mostly Sal Paradise wandering around the country with a different group of outcasts and outsiders and barely making any sort of revelations or character change until perhaps the end of the film. On the Road is important for its sharp, unique prose and the poetry of his descriptions of the fringes of American 1950s American society. The only way that I could see an On the Road adaptation working as a movie is as some type of late-period Terrence Malick style visual tone poem which tries to keep as much of Kerouac’s prose and poetry intact. The film version that exists attempts a more traditional narrative structure and it robs the piece of much of Kerouac’s magic insight.
For those who haven’t read the book and aren’t familiar with the tangled web of “beat” literature, On the Road is a very autobiographical tale of the both literal and spiritual journey that Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), aka author Jack Kerouac, takes around the nation when he finds himself drawn into the social circle of a group of mad and passionate intellectuals and freaks including homosexual poet Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), aka Allen Ginsberg, and manic conman Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), aka Neal Cassady. Deciding that the only chance he’ll have to write anything of meaning will be if he leaves his material world of comfort in New York City behind, Sal sets out on the road and crosses back and forth across the country multiple times in search of inspiration and the elusive American dream. Whether or not he ever finds it is up to your interpretation of the novel.
On the Road clearly couldn’t adapt the entirety of Kerouac’s sprawling, epic portrait of life on the American road into a two or so hour movie and so the vast majority of the book’s more minor subplots get left on the cutting room floor (though when they arrive, they are so thinly developed that you’d probably be left wondering what the fuck is going on if you haven’t read the book), and screenwriter Jose Rivera picks a few key threads to focus on. A significant amount of the novel is dedicated to Dean Moriarty’s almost criminal mistreatment of his girlfriends/wife, the 16 year old Marylou (Twilight‘s Kristen Stewart) and the older but even more suffering Camille (Kirsten Dunst) as well as the homoerotic subtext of Dean’s friendship with Sal and his explicit (in terms of not being subtext/not graphic portrayal) homosexual relationship with Carlo Marx.
Those are important threads of the novel, and I particularly appreciated that the movie made clear things that Jack Kerouac only really hinted at in the novel in regards to Dean and Carlo’s sexual relationship (something that’s become a matter of historical record since the novel came out). And, the film addresses the insanely misogynistic behavior that Dean commits pathologically that Sal seems to in love with him to ever call him out on in the book. But, by focusing so heavily on the darker aspects of the novel, the movie fails to capture those moments (which are as important to the book as its sense of alienation and desperation) in the novel where Sal is bowled over by the simple beauty of life. I understand that sort of tonal complexity is difficult to accomplish in a film but if you’re going to tackle such an important and beloved novel, it’s subtleties have to be respected.
What I’m about to say will probably come off as somewhat ironic since I’ve been harping on how much I dislike Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady as an actual person, but he’s also without question the most interesting and dynamic figure in the work (though the increased attention given to Carlo Marx in the film helps make that more of a competition). Dean can’t stop moving. If he stands still for even a second, he gets bored. And his ever-present restlessness brings ruin down on everyone around him so thank the gods that the best performance of the film comes from Garrett Hedlund who plays perpetual motion machine Neal Cassady so well. He may not have the “hopped up on speed” mania that I got from reading the book, but it’s also easy to see why Sal began to swoon so hard for this man of undeniable magnetism (how homoerotic did that sentence come off). There’s a scene at the end of the film where Dean confronts Sal one last time that is heartbreaking as played by the talented Mr. Hedlund. I want to see more from this young star.
Others in the film seemed less well cast. Sam Riley seems like the premiere contender for most absurd casting decision ever. He looks nothing like Jack Kerouac so his mediocre performance can’t even be looked over for him at least having some type of physical resemblance to the man. If Sal is a passive observer in the books, the movie manages to make Sal Paradise seem even less interesting by comparison. Kirsten Dunst has never been well cast for a role in her life and it still boggles my mind that she has an acting career, and her Camille is no exception. Mad Men‘s Elisabeth Moss shows up for all of five minutes to play a minor role and I kept wishing that she would have played Camille instead. Surprisingly, Kristen Stewart was an interesting take on Marylou and it reminds me that in Adventureland and Into the Wild, she’s a good actress. She’s just forced the awful Bella Swan on the public as her most famous role.
If there’s one last positive thing to say about the film, it’s that one can’t fault the gorgeous cinematography from Eric Gautier who provided similarly impressive work on an earlier, better Walter Salles film, The Motorcycle Diaries. This review comes off as really harsh to this vision of one of the most well-loved novels of the 20th century, so I don’t want to give the idea that On the Road was a bad film. It just made a number of bizarre design decisions that distract from what makes On the Road so special and unique. I don’t envy anyone the task of trying to make a film on a novel that’s so personal to so many people. Lord knows that as a screenwriter myself, I would never want that burden. But, they volunteered to do it, and throughout the whole film, I had the thought at the back of my head that I wish it had gone differently.
Final Score: B-