The journey to adapt Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel has been a long one. Francis Ford Coppola acquired the rights in 1979 and since then the project has been victim of one false start after another. This makes sense seeing as how the book is not known for its story as much as its mood. The work of the beat generation relishes in abstraction and experimentation – this is basically its definition. On the Road is as much a celebration of the written word as it is a portrait of post-WWII, non-conformist ideology. This is a book that is inherently tied to its medium, which makes it an unlikely candidate for adaptation. Another beat-defining work, Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl,” was recently given a film adaptation and the result was awkward and hokey. It’s appropriate, then, that On the Road was largely believed to be unfilmable.
The project never fully died as a result of Coppola’s dedication to it. He finally found its director in Walter Salles, whose 2004 historical road movie - Motorcycle Diaries - makes him an appropriate choice. Salles directs On the Road with playful ease. He translates the bebop rhythm of Kerouac’s prose with quick cutting and handheld camera moves. The magic-hour lighting casts a warm glow over the widescreen panoramas mirroring the book’s unabashed romanticism. Salles creates a mood that feels true to the Kerouac ideal, however, this is only half the battle. In regards to the film’s stunted history Coppola said “…(On the Road is) definitely something of a spirit, but no one quite knew how to put the flesh on it”- herein lies the challenge.
The script by Jose Rivera addresses this issue by playing to the book’s autobiographical nature. The cast is billed with two character names – the names from the book as well as their real-life alter-egos. This allows the film to depict the making of the novel as well as its content. Throughout it we see Sal/Kerouac furiously taking notes and sitting at his typewriter struggling to get started. This all builds to a climactic “Eureka!” moment where we see him type compulsively onto a scroll as it spills onto the floor. This subplot is plagued with cliches but seems to be the best shot the film has at a compelling through-line – it could have been worse.
I think about a speech Nicholas Cage delivers in Spike Jonze’s Adaptation. Cage plays a screenwriter struggling to adapt Susan Orlean’s sprawling book The Orchid Thief. Speaking to an executive about the script he says “It’s just, I don’t want to compromise by making it a Hollywood product. An orchid heist movie(…)Or cramming in sex, or car chases, or guns. Or characters learning profound life lessons. Or characters growing or characters changing or characters learning to like each other or characters overcoming obstacles to succeed in the end. Y’know? Movie shit.” I imagine similar conversations surrounding On the Road.
On the Road does avoid compromise by staying true to the bohemian narrative of the book. The problem is, by avoiding “movie shit”, it falls short of being a very good movie. It wanders through its running time in the spirit of the protagonists, Sal and Dean. It sacrifices narrative strength for picaresque tourism. In the realm of cinema, this can only go so far. This kind of film depends on the strength of its performances – if we’re going to watch characters wander aimlessly for two hours, they better be damn interesting characters.
Sal is played by Sam Riley whose smokey voice-over (sounding a lot like Christian Bale’s Batman) interprets Kerouac’s road-worn narrative with precision. Riley’s Sal is charming and empathetic – even when picking cotton, he appears to be soaking it all in. Even though his voiceover tells us that his father’s recent death made him fall ill and feel like “everything is dead”, he doesn’t act as if he’s too beat up about it. His muse and hero, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), is free-spirited and reckless – he drives fast and always answers the door naked. The film charts the push-pull relationship of Dean and Sal, who share a weary wanderlust brought on by the absence of their fathers. In Denver, Sal is shown trailing behind Dean as he desperately asks barbers and bartenders if they’ve seen his father. This is a sad and self-contained moment – Sal’s empathy draws him close to Dean but, as the events of On the Road demonstrate, his view from across the street might be the safest distance to show his support.
The supporting characters supply the best performances in On the Road. Kristen Stewart affectionately portrays Marylou, Dean’s abused wife, as a strong independent rather than a sex-crazed submissive. Viggo Mortenson plays Old Bull Lee (the stand-in for William Burroughs) with a depth and nuance that is unequaled. His segment (as well as one involving Steve Buscemi) suggests a movie that could have been great. On the Road has many moments like this but fails to make much of them. Given all of its cool-guy charm, the film ultimately lacks weight, relevance, or even a point. Y’know? Movie shit.
5 out of 10