When Jack Kerouac’s On The Road first came into print over fifty years ago there was instantly talk of a film adaptation. Kerouac himself thought Marlon Brando’s brooding sexuality was perfect for Dean Moriarty, an idea that sadly never came to fruition.
Over the years myriad names have been rumoured to be attached to the adaptation, including Brad Pitt, Sean Penn and Johnny Depp. It’s only now that The Motor Cycle Diaries director Walter Salles can present the result of five years of remarkable commitment to bringing what many people consider the definitive un-filmable book to the big screen. No book is more clearly defined by the style of writing than this, which ensures that, even more than most literary adaptations, any film version of On The Road would rely heavily on personal interpretation. There’s nothing easier than to criticise a film for not being as you had envisioned while reading its literary counterpart; such is the nature of the book one hundred different readers will have one hundred different visions of Sal Paradise, the countless locations travelled to across America, the Benzedrine fuelled, jazz enthused and sex-crazed characters, the limitless, formless conversations, and most essentially; Dean Moriarty.
The inclusion of the original transcript’s opening line of Sal having first met Dean after the death of his father, rather than the subsequent published version where the occasion is changed to after having divorced his wife, is a statement of intent from the director. This early indication that Salles is presenting the characters as much as their real life counterparts as their literary adaptations is essential in his narrative, and successfully ensures that the film is as much about the writing of On The Road as it is an adaptation of the book itself. In less capable hands, this could easily have turned into a gushing, buddy road movie with a wide appeal, but Salles hasn’t shied away from the harsh realities from life on the road in post war America. Most significantly, Dean Moriarty is presented less as the charismatic madman and more of a character constantly torn between his overwhelming urge to ‘live’ and an overwhelming, intrinsic melancholy.
The role is as close to impossible as can be found for any actor, but Garrett Hedlund is admirable and subtly underplayed as Dean. He is necessarily expressively absent during times of expected emotional maturity, or when confronted with authority; and perfectly embodies the youth burning with sexual desire and itching to live that never drips over into caricature. Sam Riley is also well cast as the Kerouac inspired lead and narrator Sal Paradise. Aesthetically he is a wonderful Sal, both underplayed and outwardly vacant as a character. We are shown the development of a man throughout the course of writing the book; how he is shaped and inspired by his life on the road, and his interactions with Dean. But just why they are so closely intertwined is unsatisfactorily explained, other than endless hugs and handshakes.
Less convincingly acted, however, is Kristen Stewart as Dean’s teenage lover Marylou. As popular as it seems to be at the moment to hate Miss Stewart, it has to be said that when it comes to delivering dialogue she distinguishes herself awfully. When it comes to the physicality of the role she is fantastic, she sweats sexual promiscuity and imminent trouble. It’s just her delivery of lines that frustrates to the point of distraction in each scene she is in. There is a phenomenal cameo by Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee, based on ‘Junkie’ author William Burroughs, who perfectly masters the cadence and mood of the infamous author, as well a brief but wonderful appearance by Steve Buscemi.
Although likely to divide faithful fans of the book, Walter Salles has made a well-intentioned and faithful adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s work, as well as an interesting biography of its creation. Conversely, the film can also be seen as everything the book is not; fairly slow-paced and overall reasonably average. This is no bad thing, though, as it is more an exploration of the spiritual; the development of Dean and Sal, which climaxes beautifully in a painful final meeting between Sal, suited and on his way to a concert, and Dean, in a moth eaten coat, dishevelled, with all the previous majesty drained from his face. The chase for physical kicks is present, numerous drugs are consumed, sexual encounters are boundless and drink and jazz are ever present. But these are not the main focus.
While Kerouac spent just three weeks writing the now famous manuscript, he spent the rest of his short life defending it, saying people had missed its point. His insistence that it was a book about a search for spirituality suggests that perhaps Walter Salles’ interpretation of On The Road is more credible and accurate than it initially appears.
On the Road is showing at Broadway until Thursday 25 October.
On The Road official website