I first read “On the Road” soon after I’d changed school districts in the 8th grade. My father had recommended the book to me, and given me his worn and oft borrowed copy of the book to read. I was absorbed in it. Perhaps I was a little young for some of it at the time, but in some way it spoke to me, as it has to so many others. I’ve read (and reread) every Kerouac book I’ve been able to get my hands on, listened to audiotapes of his poetry recordings, and perhaps tried a little too much to get into his head. I’ve probably read On the Road 12 times—that same worn out copy, which now has the front cover functioning as a bookmark. So when I heard that a film version of what may be my favorite book was being made I was, at first, very excited. Then there were concerns. The casting seemed a bit off, and of course there was the worry that someone else was distilling Kerouac’s 500+ pages of writing into a screenplay for a 2 hour movie. How can you capture the essence? How do you maintain the jazz of the spontaneous prose, the elation and exhaustion of the road and how will you portray people I’ve so carefully examined and sought to understand?
In short, they did not do all of those spectacularly things spectacularly well. First, however, let me give accolades where they are due. The greatest strength of the film, and the aspect of the film I was absolutely confident in from the start, was the cinematography. When Walter Salles was announced as the director of the film it was clear there was no other choice. One need not look further than his direction of “The Motorcycle Diaries” (an adaptation of Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s autobiographic book of the same name) to know that Salles can direct a road movie like no other. Salles even used the same cinematographer for both projects, and from Eric Gauthier’s camera the characters in both films are portrayed against rugged and beautiful scenery in gritty and muted tones that evoke the beauty, the power, and the often physically and mentally exasperating aspects of abandoning oneself to the filth and the furies of the road. Also consistent with both projects is the choice of screenwriter, but we’ll get to him in a second.
The problem a lot of people had with this film was casting. I don’t disagree. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac himself) was the most glaring miscasting to me. Kerouac played college football for Columbia, he was a sailor with the Merchant Marine, he was a drinker of the highest and heaviest order. Sam Riley is scrawny, anemic looking, and overly unkempt. When Kerouac talks about being unkempt that means he has stubble and his hair is unwashed and a tad less than high and tightly cut. We’ll cut the kid some slack though. He does alright in the role, he may not look like Kerouac, but he does an okay attempt at Kerouac’s speech patterns and Lowell accent, and he’s a fine actor. Onto Garret Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady). There’s no doubting he looks the part, and I thought perhaps we could have a winning Dean here. We don’t. I’m not sure if it’s the actor or the part he’s written that falls short, but Dean’s character falls flat. There’s none of the racing energy, the constant bobbing, tapping, fast talking, benny induced mania of the book in the film’s Dean. What we have is a slow talking, drawling and almost deliberate Dean, though he does retain a deal of his charm. Of course many people from the beginning have had fault with another casting choice: Kristen Stewart as Marylou. Many will avoid this film entirely because of how vast their hate for her is. Others will want to see it when they hear she’s topless several times. Let’s just say that’s no reason to see the movie. Neither is her acting, it’s flat and I’d almost say she makes you wonder what Dean is doing with her. At this point I must seem very negative. I am. I do have a couple casting accolades to put in though. Viggo Mortensen was great as Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs), and Mad Men’s Elizabeth Moss was great as the whining and neurotic Dean hater Galatea Dunkle. Overall casting wasn’t a strong suit in my opinion, but that’s not my main problem with the film.
Where “On the Road” went wrong with me was the screenplay. Being written by Jose Rivera, who did a great job with “The Motorcycle Diaries,” it seemed that the screenplay would be in safe hands. Let me preface the coming rant by saying I know that Rivera had a Herculean task at his hands. He had to condense a long book into a viewable film, and it is a book nonetheless that has a dedicated cult following. So you would think that Rivera would be cautious to follow the book, to seek to capture the soul of the book. Instead Rivera is bold in making changes, large omissions and additions. Let me clarify, I’m okay with many of the changes. He makes Sal French-Canadian instead of Italian so Kerouac’s accent being used makes sense. Bully! He skips the second back and forth trip and the furniture moving story line with the trip to the brother’s house and all that, that’s fine. Small changes that help to blend the truth with the novelization make sense. The problem comes when you start adding things, Carlo Marx’s (Allen Ginsberg) admission of love and infatuation with Dean to Sal, orgies and conversations about orgies, I could go on, I won’t. Of course there were a couple of glaring omissions too, the biggest being the greatest road scene of all, the 100mph destructive and chaotic trip in the Cadillac limousine. They also make Terry less significant, and skip the major amount of time spent with Remy. I think the greatest problem with the screenplay is how the entire tone of the novel is changed. It’s wrong, and almost despicably so. This film almost comes across as a negative critique of the novel, Kerouac, and his entire circle of friends. They’re shown as nothing but shallow criminals and sexual deviants. Sure, a lot of the book is dedicated to drinking, smoking tea, chasing women and getting kicks. In the book these things are part of a passion, they’re the result of listlessness and lust for life in the aftermath of World War II with World War III hanging overhead. To put it one way; in the film the characters fuck, in the book they have hours of sweet reverie. In the book the more deviant activities are glossed over and sex itself is portrayed as the ultimate expression of humanity, while the film is filled with gratuitous lusty and decadent sex scenes more evocative of Miller’s “Tropic of Cancer.” In the book Sal and Dean are seeking to fill gapping chasms in their beings, they don’t simply lust after the Monroe’s of the world, they see women and they fall in love because they want to understand, they want to commit themselves, they want to be grounded. Ultimately they’re unable too because the road is in their blood, because no woman, no stolen car, or no whiskey bottle can long satisfy the aches in their hearts or heal their damaged pasts. While the screenplay does well in translating the spontaneous jazz prose of Kerouac’s writing to the screen, particularly when directly referencing the text, the final product is a perversion of a book that defined a generation.
If I hadn’t read “On the Road,” loved it, breathed it, imitated, quoted or needed it—perhaps I would enjoy this film. I’d see it as beautifully shot, the characters as perhaps interesting, eccentric and brooding. But this film is the adaptation of not only a great literary work of the 20th century, but of the lives of many people, and in some ways a piece of the souls of many others. In this respect, I find the film to fall into disappointment with a shallow and cold vanity that betrays the heart of the novel and those who love it. Perhaps my expectations were too high, or perhaps like Dean or Sal I was hoping this film would somehow satiate some aching need for understanding.