I’ve always loved Jack Kerouac’s On the Road. Most of the reasons for this should be fairly obvious: I’m an aspiring writer (is there any other kind?); I’ve bounced back and forth between New York and San Francisco several times, as Kerouac does in the book; I love the youthful energy and spirit of the Beats, who attempted to cast off staid society’s expectations in search of new adventures and experiences; I’m a wandering restless soul; I’m a drunken fool.
I’m hardly the only one who the book has spoken to over the years. When it was published in 1957, it became a keystone for an entire generation. Kerouac and his Beat compatriots provided the foundation upon which the hippie counterculture of the ’60s was built. Not everyone loved it: James Baldwin accused Kerouac of being shallow and exploitative in his portrayal of African American life, and Truman Capote famously said of Kerouac’s spontaneous writing style, “That’s not writing, it’s typing.” (For what it’s worth, the whole notion of the spontaneity of the writing is somewhat exaggerated. Kerouac did tape pages together to form a scroll so he could type uninterrupted, and he did write the first draft of On the Road in three weeks. But, as the movie shows, the novel grew out of notebooks he’d been keeping for years beforehand.)
Almost from the moment it was published, fans have clamored for a film adaptation. Kerouac himself wanted to see it optioned, and asked Marlon Brando to buy the rights and star in the film. Brando passed, and the possibility of a film languished for years, even after Francis Ford Coppola obtained the rights and got Russell Banks to write a screenplay. But a couple of years ago, word came out that the film was finally entering production, and it would be directed by Walter Salles and written by Jose Rivera. The prospect of any On the Road adaptation would have gotten me fired up, but the writer/director team was particularly encouraging: These are the same guys that made Motorcycle Diaries, one of my favorite movies, which tells the story of a young Che Guevara taking a life-altering road trip through South America.
I stayed optimistic as casting updates came out. Sam Riley, who was fantastic as Ian Curtis in Control, was cast to play Kerouac (note, I’m going to use the names of the real people, as Kerouac did in the original scroll version, and not the pseudonyms that are used in the published novel and the movie version); Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst were cast to play Neal Cassady’s wives; and Viggo Mortensen playing William Burroughs? I mean, could it get more awesome? I also thought the first trailer was encouraging–I got goosebumps when I heard the “mad ones” passage.
But then the news took a turn for the worse. The release date was pushed back. The reviews from the Cannes Film Festival were generally negative. The movie eventually came out around Christmas, except I couldn’t find it in a theater in San Francisco. Maybe it played for a week at the Castro or the Kabuki, but if it did I didn’t notice, and I was looking for it. For emphasis, let me repeat this: On the Road did not make it to screens in San Fran-fucking-cisco. So I missed it.
Of course, I recently moved to New York, and it happened that a few weeks ago I was walking up Second Avenue in the East Village, and I saw that On the Road was on a theater marquee. So, last week I went to a matinee showing (one of the perks of being unemployed), and I thought I’d share my thoughts on the adaptation. Here goes:
They tried. They really did. And frankly, I’m not sure, given that they didn’t really succeed, that On the Road is adaptable at all. There are a number of good things about the film. The cinematography is lovely, from the dark gray streets of New York to the open spaces of the west. I thought Dunst and Stewart were both pretty great. And they really nailed the Neal Cassady character, from the way he’s written to the performance by Garrett Hedlund. You could make an argument that the movie works if you look at it as being Cassady’s story: the very embodiment of Kerouac’s mad ones, Cassady inspires everyone around him, makes everyone, from Kerouac to Ginsberg to the women, fall in love with him, and ultimately let’s everyone down. (It’s to the film’s credit that it shows how damaging Cassady’s constant running off is to the women in his life; Kerouac glosses over this in the novel, and for this I think he’s ultimately as guilty of treating the women as disposable objects as Cassady is.) In particular, they nailed the sad final scene of the book (it’s the penultimate scene in the film) when a shambling, disheveled Cassady surprises Kerouac on the streets of New York, only Kerouac leaves Cassady behind for a prior engagement.
But there are too many problems. First, while the mad ones speech gave me goosebumps when I saw it in the trailer, it felt shoehorned into the scene where it actually appeared in the film. They needed to include some of Kerouac’s prose in voice-over–that was not optional–but as is often the case, I didn’t think that it really worked. (I don’t have a suggestion for how it could have been done better; I thought this was a problem in The Thin Red Line as well, though I’m in the minority there.) And I admit I may be betraying some bias here, but very few scenes in the film take place in San Francisco, and I feel like that city is so crucial as a setting in the book–it almost feels like they cut an important character. Also, I’ve listened to a bunch of Kerouac audio recordings, and Sam Riley doesn’t sound like Kerouac. I know that’s even less fair than complaining about an actor not looking like the real life person he’s playing, but it was an issue for me.
The biggest problem is the movie lacks the energy, the driving force of the novel. It’s not for lack of trying. The characters are constantly getting in adventures, and saying how wild and crazy they feel, but for some reason I can’t articulate, it’s not infectious. When you read On the Road, the energy of the prose jumps off the page and grabs you by the shirt and picks you up off the couch and pushes you out the door and onto the next train out of town. That energy doesn’t make it off the screen, which is hugely problematic because the book lacks much in the way of narrative arc. You read the book for that energy, not for the plot. The film similarly lacks an arc–it starts with Kerouac meeting Cassady, and ends with him beginning to write the book, but you don’t feel like Kerouac’s character actually grew at all. Without the methamphetamine burst of Kerouac’s prose, the lack of plot and character development really stands out. This also contrasts with Salles’ and Rivera’s previous road narrative, Motorcycle Diaries, in which there is a well-defined arc–the way the road trip turns the young medical student Ernesto into the revolutionary leader Che. As readers, we know that the road changed Kerouac, and Kerouac in turn changed the world–much like Che. But the movie doesn’t make you feel that.
They tried. It didn’t work, but all the same, I’m glad they tried.