Unfailingly earnest and unassailably ambitious, Walter Salles’s On the Road is more of an embalming than an adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 cult novel. Since Salles consciously avoids slavish adherence to the source material (the sin of many faithful adaptations) and also extensively researched the Beat Generation milieu inspired by Kerouac, this is a pity.
The problem lies with the fact that, despite Salles’s good intentions and the participation of a stellar—if unevenly effective—cast, he lacks the cinematic imagination to bring a novel beloved by generations of counterculturalists and dissidents (notwithstanding the fact that Kerouac himself became increasingly politically conservative as he aged) to life for the era of Occupy Wall Street. Even the brilliant cinematographer Eric Gautier’s widescreen compositions cannot animate scenes in which mid-20th-century hipsters writhe unconvincingly to jazz riffs and a threesome between protagonists Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), and Marylou (Kristen Stewart) comes off more as an imitation of a Calvin Klein ad than an erotic bonanza. Too many scenes involve Riley’s flat voice-over intonation of slabs of Kerouac’s prose such as the famous lyrical tribute to individuals who are “mad to be saved” and “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles.” As evidence that we are dealing with budding literary intellectuals (unlike the hippies that followed them, the Beats were primarily, if anything, a literary movement), Salles foregrounds pretentious close-ups of Proust’s Swann’s Way and a rather perfunctory exegesis on the inadequacy of English translations of Louis-Ferdinand Céline.
Anyone even slightly familiar with Kerouac’s novel knows that the book is an engagingly written evocation of personages from his own life—autobiography metamorphosed into art with the assistance of a prose style that emulates jazz from the bebop era; Kerouac christened it “bop prose.” For aficionados, it’s not difficult to align the fictional characters with their real-life models and the lavish press book distributed at Cannes assuages any residual doubts one might have. Sal Paradise is of course Kerouac’s alter ego; Dean Moriarty is the fictional incarnation of his impulsive bisexual friend, Neal Cassady; Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) is the spitting image of Allen Ginsberg in the years before he composed his famous poem Howl, while Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) is, unmistakably, the gravel-voiced William S. Burroughs. Kristen Stewart takes a stab at embodying Marylou, Cassady’s child bride LuAnne(he married her when she was 15 and they were divorced by her 18th birthday) and Kirsten Dunst valiantly assumes the relatively conventional role of Camille, based on Cassady’s second wife, Carolyn, a brilliant woman trapped by the travails of raising kids on limited means.
Although published in the late ‘50s, On The Road actually reinvents a series of cross-country journeys that Kerouac and his pals embarked on between 1947 and 1950. This awareness that the novel references a pre-beatnik era, during which Americans were still emerging from the ravages of the Great Depression, seems to inform some of Salles’s aesthetic choices—a few early scenes even appear vaguely reminiscent of landscapes familiar from Walker Evans’s photographs or John Ford’s film version of The Grapes of Wrath. Still, despite a few inventive visual ideas, the general impression is that fine art direction and production design cannot compensate for overweening cinematic inertness.
Kerouac wanted Marlon Brando to play Dean Moriarty in the film version of his masterpiece and, by those exalted standards, Garrett Hedlund’s Dean certainly disappoints. Playing a man who apparently blended the streetwise prowess of a petty criminal with an enormous amount of charm, Hedlund just seems like a bit of a dullard. As Sal, Riley, who delivered a fine performance as Ian Curtis in Anton Corbijn’s Control, has little to do but impersonate a writer who, Kerouac’s storied bohemian reputation notwithstanding, is, like most writers, a detached observer. Since Kristen Stewart regaled journalists at the film’s press conference with heartfelt anecdotes of listening to old tapes of LuAnne Henderson’s reminiscences and betrays a strong empathy for her character, it’s disappointing to report that, although she pouts nicely, her turn as Marylou is rather lifeless. Viggo Mortensen rarely disappoints, however. His Old Bull Lee is a fitting tribute to Burroughs, Midwestern cracker-barrel philosopher, junkie poet, and the literary innovator who eventually transcended Beat Generation clichés with his groundbreaking novel, Naked Lunch.
One of Salles’s more welcome embellishments is the fleshing out of the novel’s female characters that, at least in the version published by Viking in 1957 before Kerouac’s original manuscript was made public, are fairly one-dimensional. The Camille/Carolyn Cassady portrayed by Dunst comes across as particularly appealing, a fount of common sense confronting a swarm of testosterone-driven, impractical men. Salles even graphically depicts some of Moriarty/Cassady’s gay trysts that are only hinted at in the novel. But this nod to the character’s complexity seems merely dutiful, the present paying tribute to a subversive past in a rather mechanical manner.
In the late ‘70s, Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to On the Road and the project eventually petered out until Salles took charge eight years ago. Filming a book once thought too sprawling and poetic to be transferred to the screen may have been a noble ideal. But, truth be told, there is more of Kerouac’s insouciant spirit in road movies from the '50s, '60s, and '70s, such as Laszlo Benedek’s The Wild One (1953; which of course did star Marlon Brando), Richard C. Sarafian’s Vanishing Point (1971) and even the now badly dated Easy Rider (1969). For years there has been an academic cottage industry devoted to dissecting Kerouac’s legacy. It’s regrettable that Salles’s epic adaptation is itself a schematic academic exercise.