There are plenty of beloved novels in the wide world of literature. The more lovers, the more eager Hollywood is to monopolize. But some of these cherished pieces of writing are better left on the page. On the Road is one of them. Directed by Walter Salles, who found great success with his other road trip film The Motorcycle Diaries, the film seemed to be in perfect hands. But turning Kerouac’s free-form prose into a structured piece of cinema isn’t an easy task. In Salles’ adaptation, he attempts to maintain the amorphous poetry of the novel while taking us along the tumultuous Kerouac adventure.
We first meet our young writer Sal Paradise played by newcomer Sam Riley, after his father dies. The character, intimately based on Jack Kerouac himself, is searching for emotional, sexual and economical freedom, much like his fellow 20-somethings in the beat generation. He doesn’t have to search long before he stumbles upon the fantastical Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). Moriarty, based on real life Neal Cassady, soon becomes a muse to Sal. He’s wild, hungry and driven intensely by sexuality. Sal is mesmerized.
He begins hanging out with Dean’s gang. There’s the beautifully broken fiancée Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart), who soon enraptures Sal with her melancholia, and then Carlo Marx, aka Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge). Carlo, like Sal, wants to devour the world; his motivations equally as artistically masturbatory, but eventually more personally fatal.
Soon, their Bacchus-infused behavior drives them out of New York City and on to the road. Sal’s happy to be along for the ride, madly scribbling in his journal along the way. Dean soon tires of Mary Lou, falls for blondie Camilla (Kirsten Dunst), gets her pregnant, only to tire of her as well and leave. Sal ignores the heartlessness. Dean is too fascinating a subject. Eventually his relationship with Dean will suffer their star-crossed fate.
The beginning of the film is seductive, but like Dean, don’t let it fool you. The whiskey and intellectually stimulating scenes in smoky, sexy bars are quite enticing. But after an hour in, you’re wondering, “wait, where is all this actually going?” And that is staying true to Sal himself, because he doesn’t know either.
Ay, there’s the rub! Making a movie about going nowhere without it going nowhere! That is perhaps the reason so many attempts to make On the Road have been set into motion and failed. It’s a novel about people in motion, but with some extreme emotional stagnancy. Oh, and there’s no form. For those of you who have been living in a literary hole, the novel is, literally, on a scroll.
But Walles was up for the task. He started adapting the novel with Jose Rivera, who he also collaborated with on The Motorcycle Diaries, over ten years ago. Casting began over 7 years ago in 2005 and Walles wanted to make the film since he read the novel in college. That’s what you call “passion project.”
And the film is no short of spectacle, sex or the unexpected actor cameo. Sold! You must think…but in actuality, all of these distract from the seed of the story. We all love Amy Adams and Viggo Mortenson, but they have no place in this film. On the other hand, the short cameo by Elizabeth Moss is completely necessary, perhaps because it saves the film from otherwise being completely lacking in performance caliber.
Hedlund gives a ripe and raw performance, but it is still very inexperienced portrayal of Dean. Busy swimming in his own emotions, Hedlund falls short in connecting to anyone accompanying him on screen. Dean left such a scar on Sal that I was disappointed to see that the same scar wasn’t left on the audience. And Stewart? She was perfectly decent, but given only a few scenes to allow Mary Lou’s vulnerabilities to shine. A main character whose complexities were overshadowed by other less important faces, it left a hole in the heart of the film.
Translating novel to screen is always a daunting task. What do you cut and what do you keep? You want to remain true to the author’s intentions, but also must find a way to entertain your viewers. Rivera and Walles’s adaptation is valiant and visually breathtaking, but it couldn’t quite find a through-line to Kerouac’s story. And if it was there, the film was too cluttered too see it. You were left unattached to nearly all characters and uninterested in their increasingly masochistic journey to maturity.