Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera, Jack Kerouac (novel)
Cast: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart
Walter Salles’s On the Road is perhaps as good as could have been expected, a faithful and gorgeously cinematic adaptation that lacks the soul and energy of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel. Infused with jazz, sex, drugs, adventure, poetry and rolling prose, the film easily draws you into the world of the Beat Generation but, once the excitement has worn off, you will be left wondering what it was all for.
The necessarily episodic plot revolves around the character of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), the quasi-mythical incarnation of the hedonistic Beat pin-up Neal Cassady. He attracts a string of followers as he journeys back and forth across America, including Kerouac’s alter-ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), who is really Allen Ginsberg, and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his young lover abound with sexual energy. Kerouac originally envisioned Marlon Brando in the role, one of the few actors who would have had a genuine shot at fully recreating Cassady’s intoxicating personality, but Hedlund does an excellent job, ensuring his character has a powerful presence and that mad glint in his eyes.
Riley also gives a good turn, resisting the temptation to take centre stage and feeding off the vibrancy of the other characters. Sal comes across as an observer, swept along by Dean’s charisma, but always trying to hold back from being drawn into the flame. He scribbles away in his notebook like some mad anthropologist on the brink of going native, taking down the philosophy of the road that will form the raw material for his book.
The lifestyle is seductive and certainly looks like a great deal of fun, while the romance of the journey is beautifully rendered. As they did for The Motorcycle Diaries, Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier succeed in capturing America’s spectacular variety. We feel the icy winters, the heat of the endless desert roads, and sense the freedom that lies on the other side of the horizon.
Arguably, the film has a more coherent narrative structure than the novel, but it still feels patchy. Characters are picked up and discarded along the way, which means we are never able to really feel anything for them. The segment featuring Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) passes by too quickly and without genuine purpose. Camille (Kirsten Dunst), like most women in On the Road, is treated disgracefully, but her story only appears as a coda to Dean’s own self-inflicted downfall.
To an extent, the novel also gives rise to this fleeting feeling, but it is able to get away with it more. The Beat Generation represented a rejection of the entire construct of American society – its very existence was an act of rebellion. The film gives us little of this context and it often appears as if the characters are just out to have a good time. Experimenting with drugs and free sex was central to their liberating ideal, and, while it is clear in the novel that they resoundly fail to live up to it, it gave them a raison d’être that is sorely lacking in the film. Sturridge’s deeply complex Carlo is the only character worthy of the epithet holy.
Kerouac wrote that the only people for him were the mad ones, the ones that ‘burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’. His characters burn brightly and then burn out, the flashes of madness become routine and the sense is lost in the indiscrete recklessness of it all. It is difficult for people of this current generation to fully understand the Beats, or even to empathise with them. On the Road is constrained by this significant limitation, but it is nevertheless an entertaining and superbly-made film that, unlike the novel, never once begins to drag.