Right from the start, I'll admit a certain weakness—one might even go as far as to say fondness—for Jack Kerouac's 1957 novel, On The Road. As a young man enamored with the idea of writing books and traveling, I found the story of a young writer trying to get his start and hitchhiking across the United States a visceral, immediate experience. I also read On The Road at an influential time—in the summer of 1992—that last glorious stretch of time between my last year of high school and my first year of university. Love is an unconditional state. So too was my love for On The Road and its run-on sentences and thinly fictionalized characters.
The real-life Neal Cassady on the left (aka Dean Moriarty) and
Jack Kerouac on the right (aka Sal Paradise) on the
Penguin Books edition of On The Road.
For the uninitiated, here are the main characters: Sal Paradise (aka a fictionalized version of Jack Kerouac), Dean Moriarty (aka Neal Cassady), and Carlo Marx (aka Allen Ginsberg). The rest you can find in a Character Key on Wikipedia. For me, the novel was a rallying cry for youth, and all its perils - drugging, partying, having sex, discovering one's self. Later on, I realized that, as literary history has shown, On The Road was a manifesto for the Beat Generation writers who rebelled against the mainstream culture of the 1950's and responded in their own way to a newly industrialized, post-World-War-II America.
So, when I heard that Walter Salles, director of The Motorcycle Diaries, which depicted Che Guevara in his formative years, had made a film version of On The Road, I was cynical at the outset. Although, admittedly, when I watched Diaries years ago, I was guilty of thinking, Jesus, this guy should direct On The Road. Look how he pulls together a panoramic travel narrative about a young man finding his identity. The novel, On The Road, though, is about language, the jazzy, lyrical cadences Kerouac made of words. After many years of false starts, he penned Road in a three-week stretch using a taped-together roll of teletype paper . How could Salles capture this lightning in a bottle?
Yet, somehow, Salles has captured this lightning.
A 2012 poster for the film, On The Road.
Teaming up again with screenwriter José Rivera, who penned Diaries, and with the financial backing of Francis Ford Coppola (who, several years back, was a name rumoured to be among potential directors for the project), Salles takes a very unique approach to the subject material. In order to more familiarize himself with Kerouac and the Beat Writers, Salles has been making a documentary about the Beats. Ironically, the director hasn't finished the documentary yet.
(Editor's Note: Mr. Walter Salles, if you are reading this, please provide an estimated release date for this doc.)
Salles focusses on the inspirational impetus for On The Road, the events that pushed Kerouac to forge ahead with the book despite several failed attempts. So, yes, yes, yes—to borrow Dean Moriarty's idiom—in this respect, the movie is almost better than the novel in certain ways. Yes, Salles focuses on quieter, introspective moments. Yes, he zeroes in on Sal Paradise as observer, the memory babe. Paradise takes in the antics of Dean Moriarty and Carlo Marx, sometimes more than he himself actually acts. In a way, Paradise lives through them. And, yes, the narrator sounds eerily like Jack Kerouac. Actor Sam Riley is so convincing as Paradise, in fact, that I mistakenly thought that the opening lines of the films were delivered by Kerouac himself via archival recordings.
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) in
Walter Salles' film adaptation of On The Road.
While the main actors are unknowns, Kristen Stewart does a sensual, emotional, rending version of Marylou (aka LuAnne Henderson). Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx is effusive, tormented, and very much as I imagined young Allen Ginsberg, fictional or not. Sam Riley as Paradise is, in my mind, a slimmer young man that I imagined Kerouac. I qualify this by adding that Kerouac attended college on a football scholarship and retained an athletic build even years later. Riley is skilled at showing a range of emotions, particularly Paradise's longing for life and his fascination and observations of those around him.
Now, allow me to analyze the other players.
Marylou (Kirsten Stewart) in a promotional
photo with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Stewart's
portrayal of Marylou is agonized yet passionate.
Viggo Mortensen also shines as Old Bull Lee (aka William S. Burroughs), even as Salles shows how Old Bull and his wife Jane (aka Joan Vollmer) live in squalor, neglecting their filthy children. Again, the dangerous undercurrent in the film mercilessly portrays how Moriarty abandons spouses, families and children in order to be drug-consuming, "kick", and inspiration-seeking rogues. Old Bull Lee and Jane are shown in an equally unflinching light.
As for the central rogue, Garrett Hedlund, as Moriarty, is beefier than I imagined the actual Cassady to be. Alas, On The Road is still meant to be fictional, so perhaps my close comparisons about Kerouac and Cassady's fictional counterparts are misplaced. But I digress. However, Hedlund is adept at depicting the character's wild mood swings, from beatific to suicidally introspective. The film also shows a more balanced picture of Cassidy than the novel. No spoilers to follow; however, viewers of the film will be far less sympathetic toward this womanizing, Benzedrine, sex-and-marijuana-addicted madman. A lot of other characters yell at him, and rightfully so, while Paradise stands there helplessly and ashamed.
The film also stands apart from the novel because it shows how Moriarty's antics affect the women around him, and how he leaves devastation in his manic wake, from single mothers to jilted lovers to manipulated and abused friends. Moriarty, often frantic, as well as stimulation, drug-and-sex-addicted, brings everyone along for the ride - but also drops them off when he is done with them. Now, with hindsight, we can probably accurately posit that Cassady was obviously bipolar.
As lovers both miserable and euphoric, and an enamored Paradise, follow Moriarty around, Salles creeps in background imagery about the ideal 1950's suburban lifestyle. A Christmas dinner scene where Moriarty and company appear uninvited and unannounced at Sal's sister's house is particularly delicious. Sal's dishevelled friends tuck into a feast while Paradise's family, stunned, watches in disapproving silence. It's a wonderful moment, a contrast between a Martha-Stewart-style dinner of excess and three frantic friends who have driven across the country for three days, arriving sleep-deprived and half-starved.
Sal Paradise talks to Carlo Marx (played by Tom Sturridge).
Salles also shows how Carlo and Dean were sleeping together. The publisher excised such explicit scenes of gay sex from the original manuscript because the publisher feared that readers of the 1950's would not be ready for the depiction of actual gay men having actual sex with one another. As someone who has read three and a half biographies on Kerouac*, I am more aware than a casual viewer would be regarding Kerouac's bisexual nature and his attitude and embrace of Ginsberg's sexuality. Cassady too was bisexual. The film hints at Sal Paradise being attracted to men, yet does not capitalize on this attraction.
In actuality, Jack slept with all manner of men, including Gore Vidal, a conquest that Jack bragged about to his pals. At the time, in 1949, Vidal as a young, successful writer. Kerouac, by contrast, was still trying to break into publishing and was months away from publishing his first epic family novel, The Town and the City. It was during the late 1940's that Kerouac was hitchhiking around the countries in fits and starts, and carousing with Cassady. All this to say that such similar material regarding the fictional Sal Paradise could have figured into On The Road, but did not. Salles, by displaying other edited material throughout the film, particularly regarding Moriarty sleeping with men, makes an added delight for anyone who read the book and knows the story behind many of the scenes.
Another aspect of the book that Salles encapsulates in On The Road is that of the hitchhiker, Sal Paradise, wandering the American countryside—in the winter, at sunset, past remote Western fields. This America of the late 1940's is gone, of course, but still retains a power and beauty. These scenes make me homesick, ironically enough, for my own days of hitchhiking and exploring.
Sal Paradise hitting the typewriter.
Paradise scribbles his notes down, desperate to capture something, anything, to feel alive inside again. And that, to me, is the heart of the writer, as well as the appeal of the beats - that they dared to shuck the 1950's lifestyle, post World War II values of the suburbs and respectable workaday folks, and break free somehow. To me, this is their most appealing trait. At their worst, though, they did indeed "burn burn burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars". That said, the Beats often left destruction in their wake, a result of boys trying to be men and not treating women as people but simply objects who would satiate them, scold them, or tend to the kids. Salles shows this sexism along with how unbridled hedonism can lead to self-destruction and the debasement of those around you, regardless of gender.
I had a conversation with a close friend with whom I watched the film. They were equally moved by On The Road in our youth. He raised a valid and troublesome question. Would a viewer like the film without reading the book? After passing this topic back and forth, I more or less concluded that, perhaps, the viewer would like the film. Dean Moriarty, they would certainly not like, and definitely not deify, as Paradise does. But, unfortunately, I consider myself too close to the sun to see it clearly. That is, I adore the film because of what Salles says about an inspired young writer, about art, and about the price others pay when artists throw them aside to pursue the craft at all costs.
More to the point, then. Does On The Road succeed as a standalone film? I'm too subjective to say, caught up in my admiration for the director's accomplishment. The only fair qualifier is the following. If you liked Jack Kerouac at one time, you'll like, perhaps even love, this film. If you didn't like Kerouac, you may not like it much. Salles' genius lies with counterbalancing this plain reality of sexism and hedonism with that of the aspiring young Sal Paradise. Paradise is eager for the experience of the road, typifying the hunger for life that drives any respectable artist.
* For the record, the Jack Kerouac biographies that I have read are: Ann Charters' Kerouac, Tom Clarke's Kerouac: A Biography, Carolyn Cassady's Off the Road: Twenty Years with Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg, and Ellis Amburn's Subterranean Kerouac: The Hidden Life of Jack Kerouac. I received Charters' bio as a birthday gift when I was in university. I leave it to you, faithful reader, to guess which bios I didn't finish.