Ever since its publication in 1957, people have been trying to make Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road into a film. Kerouac himself tried to entice Marlon Brando to play main character Dean Moriarty in a film rendition of the book, and later (riding high on his many early successes) Francis Ford Coppola tried (and tried again and again) to get the film made, but nothing happened. Like The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road seemed fated to never see the silver screen. Truthfully, it’s just better that way sometimes.
If you’ve finished high school, you’ve more than likely read On the Road. It’s a fortuitous novel, almost a biography of the dawn of a new generation, the Beats. Kerouac and his notepad were there at the beginning for its reckless, bloody, pot- and Benzedrine-induced birth. His book is a meandering, curious, cross-country masterpiece of ambitious aimlessness sprawling across 320 pages (or 120 feet of scroll), a statement of intent as much as a piece of personal journalism. It’s a story of madness and addiction of every kind – drugs, love, people – a photograph built with words of the first misfit beaks poking through the delicate white shell of post-war conformity.
The film was never going to capture anything close to that. The fact that it took more than 50 years to get any real traction on a project that was a passion for so many should have spelled that out pretty plainly. Even a good film would suffer from comparison to the novel, but director Walter Salles and writer Jose Rivera have not corralled the text – no one ever could, and that’s sort of the point.
Aimlessness works well in the novel format. It’s where writers can really stretch their legs and roam free in the garden of beautiful passages and striking metaphors. In film, where the audiences are less patient, aimlessness is a cross to bear. Very few directors have pulled it off, and even though both executive producer Francis Ford Coppola (in Apocalypse Now) and director Salles (in The Motorcycle Diaries) have done so in the past, it’s hard to replicate that kind of success. Especially when your story lugs as much history, legend and behind-the-scenes gossip with it as On the Road does.
Garrett Hedlund, somewhat surprisingly, makes an excellent Dean Moriarty, the character in the novel written to represent the larger-than-life personality he was based on: Neal Cassady. Cassady’s mad rambling letters to Kerouac contained some of the best Beat Generation writing, and Hedlund’s eyes capture the manic spirit of those letters. You want to be his friend, even though his friendship comes in the form of an all-consuming cyclone. It was the only role in this movie that needed to be completely right. Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) also steal a little bit of the spotlight, but they don’t bring enough to the table to sustain the film through some of its other problems. Fortunately for Kristen Stewart, she is not one of the problems – but she also really doesn’t have much to do here. The story belongs to Moriarty, and to a lesser extent, Sal Paradise (played by Sam Riley in a mostly forgettable performance), the character Kerouac penned to represent himself.
The problem with this film is that it’s impossible to divorce it, even a little bit, from its source material. It seems unfair, but those are the breaks when it comes to generational adaptations. Sometimes a picture is just not worth a thousand words – especially when those words belong to Jack Kerouac.