It’s not that surprising that all previous attempts to bring Jack Kerouac’s seminal beat novel to the screen have floundered. It’s often been described as being an ‘unfilmable’ book and not perhaps without good reason. Kerouac’s distinct writing style did not adhere to conventional narrative structure and was imbued with a sense of spontaneity and freedom that befitted his nonconformist nature.
Like many of Kerouac’s works, On The Road is told in the form of a narration, with the central character, Sal Paradise, a de facto pseudonym for Kerouac himself. The events which unfold are told through Sal’s eyes and it is his own personal observations and musings on what he witnesses that create such a captivating glimpse into the experiences of the beat generation. The challenge of translating Sal’s own innermost thoughts as well capturing the very distinct tone and sense of time and place that Kerouac’s novel possessed, was always going to be a major challenge to any director.
Walter Salles’ adaptation may not be without its faults, but it’s a commendable and enjoyable take on the source material and one which goes some way of capturing the counterculture spirit of freedom which the novel’s author intended.
For the uninitiated, On The Road chronicles the various road trips across the United States undertaken by budding writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) between 1947 and 1950 as he seeks inspiration and a greater sense of meaning. His frequent partner in crime is Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a character who stands in for real life Kerouac muse Neal Cassidy, a free-spirited and hedonistic young man with a magnetic personality and an infectious desire to seek out ‘kicks’. As the pair take in the sights and sounds of booming American cities like San Francisco and New York, they embrace the newfound jazz craze, indulge in recreational drug use and enjoy a free and easy approach to sex. While Sal himself is taking in new experiences and seeing what this exciting new counterculture has to offer, it’s the character of Dean and the repercussions of his actions which are perhaps of greatest importance.
Dean flits between a wife called Camille (Kirsten Dunst) with whom he has two kids, and his sixteen year old girlfriend, Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Dean shows great love and affection for both but fails to commit to either with his pursuit of a good time and adventures with his buddy Sal always taking priority. His selfish nature is often masked by his incredibly magnetic and likeable personality, and even he admits to Sal that he secretly hates the way he acts sometimes, he just doesn’t seem able to stop it. As Sal’s road tripping days eventually come to an end, the fate of Dean Moriarty and the relationship between the two of them is far from assured.
There was obviously a need by Salles to edit down Kerouac’s work and to leave out certain story strands and condense others. To cram in every minor detail that the author covered is simply implausible for any filmmaker. Despite the great challenge this represented for Salle, the director manages it well. He trimmed some of the more superfluous moments and yet maintained many of the themes which Kerouac wished to emphasise. Ideas such as the bonds of friendship, the desire to explore the American West, Dean’s status as ‘natural man’ unbound by the norms of society and the central characters’ clear rejection of authority, are all weaved into On The Road’s two hour runtime.
Given the novel’s structure, it was inevitable that much of the film would need to be narrated by Sal and this again is adopted well by Salles. Sam Riley’s Sal offers a curious and often wide-eyed take on his adventures and his clear admiration and affection of Dean is captured well. The homo-erotic subtext to Sal and Dean’s relationship which ran throughout Kerouac’s book is also not shied away from. The friendship between Sal and Dean and the close bond which forms between them is the very core of On The Road’s story and thus it was vital that Salles captured this as accurately as he does.
Hedlund in particular must be singled out for special praise for his performance. His infectiously charming and dangerously attractive Dean is an exceptional take on a complicated character with his laid-back delivery of Moriarty’s “yes, yes yes” refrain sounding entirely authentic. Personally I can’t think of many finer performances this year and I’d go as far as to say Hedlund is worthy of an Oscar nomination for his take on the role, though whether the academy will agree is another matter.
While Hedlund shines above all, the whole cast is worthy of commendation. Stewart is a fitting mix of sexuality and exploitable naivety as Marylou, Tom Sturridge gets Carlo Marx spot on and Viggo Mortensen is outstanding as sage guru Old Bull Lee.
In staying true to its source material, one cannot ignore that On The Road’s subject matter, especially its lead character’s attitudes towards females, are very much of their time. Women in On The Road do little but follow the men around, have sex with them, and/or get in the way of their fun. Several critics of the film have emphasised that as well as possessing dated attitudes towards women, lead characters are all inherently unlikeable due to them being selfish and full of their own importance. For me, these arguments completely miss the point. The context of On The Road is vital. It IS a product of its time, but we must also bear in mind that the extremely conservative society in which Kerouac operated was what generated the beat writers in the first place. Kerouac’s work was born out of a desire to lead a different life and undertake experiences that normal people would not. People like Dean may be selfish and immoral in our eyes, but they are not meant to be perfect individuals. They are merely examples of a mindset which a select group of people operated under during that era. To criticise the film for glorifying self-involved characters is to hold the story up to modern standards and completely ignore their historical context.
The film is not perfect by any means. It’s also inevitable that the exhilarating nature of the novel cannot always be translated into film and it can feel like the story is meandering along in parts. Some scenes such as the group sitting around and getting high on Benzedrine may be expanded upon in a novel but aren’t perhaps of great interest in cinematic form. Sam Riley’s narration cannot always inject the necessary vim and vigour into events on screen as part of what makes those scenes so memorable in the book is the time Kerouac puts into painting them. On occasions, this does make the film drag a little as seemingly inconsequential events unfold.
It’s always difficult to give an unbiased review of a film which is based on a revered source novel. As a huge fan of the book itself, I was in all honesty worried that I would not enjoy the film and feared it would not begin to do the book justice. It was an extremely pleasant surprise therefore to find that it most certainly does. You can never truly reciprocate a unique piece of literature like On The Road in film form, but Salles deserves great credit for fairly closely capturing the spirit of the book and creating an entertaining and engaging story along the way. I can however understand why non-fans of the book may take umbrage and not find as much to enjoy in the movie. It’s certainly not going to be to everybody’s tastes and is by no means a resounding cinematic masterpiece. However with electric central performances and some truly gorgeous shots throughout, I personally feel it is a fitting and absorbing tribute to a seminal novel.