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There are some books that simply were not made to be films. Jack Kerouac’s On the Road is unfortunately one of them. The novel has a notorious history for attempting a screen adaptation; Francis Ford Coppola has been trying to create an adaptation since he bought the rights in 1979. After several previous failed attempts, Coppola snagged The Motorcycle Diaries’ director Walter Salles in 2007, and a completed version was screened at the Cannes Film Festival and released this year.
Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera definitely faced a challenge in translating On the Road to the big screen. Kerouac’s 1957 acclaimed semi-autobiographical novel chronicles the time he spent travelling across the United States with his friends that included Neal Cassady (character Dean Moriarty in the book), William S. Burroughs, and Allen Ginsburg. On the Road is considered to be the definitive novel of the “Beat” generation, the godfathers of hipster. Surrounded by a conformist culture, the Beats thrived on jazz, drugs, poetry, and individuality. Kerouac exhibits such jazz-influenced energy in his writing that it produces a struggle to capture that energy in a script.
The film starts off promising, with Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley displaying great chemistry as Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise (alter-ego of Kerouac) respectively, which is so vital to the story. Hedlund has been receiving rave reviews for his performance of the unstable and eccentric Moriarty, and while I think he achieved a believable performance, I would have liked to have seen him wilder and more spontaneous. Hedlund’s version of Moriarty is more subdued, but the essence and appeal to Moriarty in the book is his almost fanatical attitude towards life.
Kristen Stewart’s performance as Mary Lou, the young wife of Moriarty, was a disappointment. The film received some publicity buzz as a star vehicle for her, but Mary Lou’s role in the book is a minor one and it should have stayed that way. Mary Lou epitomizes a young, confused, sexpot, something that Stewart did not deliver.
The over-two-hour film drags into its middle section, due mainly to the fact that in order to really understand Kerouac’s message, you have to read his words. The film remains visually appealing throughout and features exciting moments of the Beat culture (such as the moments in the jazz clubs), although there needed to be a bigger emphasis on the socio-cultural context. The Beats lived in a time of the Red Scare, McCarthyism, and extreme conformity, which fuelled their desire to just go ‘on the road’.
I also disagreed with the extended time dedicated to the homoerotic behaviour of some of the characters. While this is one of the themes in the book, a larger one is about the homosocial bonding that occurred between the characters. More scenes of up-all-night philosophical discussions would have made the audience better understand the relationship between Moriarty and Paradise.
Overall, while I believe the novel On the Road is ultimately unfilmable, I do believe that this film adaptation could have achieved more. The film does end poignantly, however, and in a last ditch effort tries to send On the Road’s main message home: that even people you briefly befriend can impact you for a lifetime.