Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and Sal (Sam Riley) are the portrait of the Beat Generation living in the here and now during the Fifties. Their search for 'It" results in a fast paced, energetic roller coaster ride with highs and lows throughout the U.S.
Jack Kerouac’s iconic account of a life-defining road trip has experienced its fair share of speed bumps in making the leap from page to the screen.
There is beauty in abundance, but little emotional charge
Accounts of its adaptation are the thing of Hollywood lore. In 1957 Kerouac himself famously offered the newly published novel’s rights to Marlon Brando, with a heartfelt pitch that he should play the role of the fiery muse: 'You play Dean and I'll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I'll show you how Dean acts in real life," he entreated, promising to give 'perfectly acceptable movie-type structure" to the freeform novel, and shoot with a dashboard camera documenting the wide-open expanse, set to a soundtrack of their yakking.
Evidently, The Wild One wasn’t wild about the notion, and since then, everyone from Montgomery Clift and Jean Luc Godard has been linked to either star or direct. Francis Ford Coppola has never stopped agitating to make the film, having bought the book outright, and spent nearly 40 years developing the concept with his son Roman (who was at one point also going to direct his own adaptation). The closest any On the Road adaptation has gotten to completion before now, was a 1995 Gus Van Sant version, adapted by Kerouac biographer, Barry Gifford. But that too, never made it very far.
Coppola the younger has admitted that the novel’s celebrated revolt from the traditional three-act-structure basically makes it a bugger to film, or as he put it, 'On the Road is famously absolutely unconventional".
Clearly undeterred by so many false starts, Brazillian Walter Salles has penned his own adaptation (with Gifford as consultant), spawned from a documentary (also shot) about Kerouac’s original cross country odyssey with Neal Cassady, immortalised in print as 'Dean Moriarty’.
Salles tenderly adapts the Beat bible, paying deference to the characters and period details. He faithfully depicts the transformative impact of the trip on the young men – and their women, albeit to a lesser extent – bristling against the conservatism of their parents’ generation. To damn it with faint praise, On the Road is as good an adaptation as you can hope for, for a book that is, by and large, unfilmable.
Salles is either the best or the worst person to adapt On the Road. Certainly, he has past experience with profound, era-defining road trips, but On the Road contains, to my mind, several of the same issues that The Motorcycle Diaries had as a film, but only takes them further: There is beauty in abundance, but little emotional charge. The Motorcycle Diaries got away with it, in being framed as a contemplative mood piece about the foundational aspects of a revolutionary mindset. But the same template can’t be applied to the adaptation of a stream-of-consciousness memoir of passionate, impulsive provocation. On the Road demands a gut reaction from the get-go. Kerouac’s sing-song cadence tells of 'mad ones" who 'burn, burn, burn like fabulous roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars".
The straightforward narrative struggles to articulate the giddy thrills of making deep connections, of kindred spirits, and sex, jazz and Benzedrine. It doesn’t help that the combination of Sam Riley as the observant wallflower Sal, and Garret Hedland as the selfish-to-a-fault fun magnet Dean, falls well short of the electrifying sympatico one expects. (Hedlund is much more convincing in the latter stages of the film as the worn-out party boy.) Cameos from Viggo Mortenson, Amy Adams and a solid turn from Kristen Stewart (as the spunky sexpot Marylou) help, but ultimately don’t help to elevate the film from the burden of its own expectations.