Sixty-one years in the making, Jack Kerouac’s ‘unfilmable’ novel ‘On The Road’ comes to the screen with a blistering and feverish adaptation from Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries). Charting Jack Kerouac’s seminal drifter experience of the late Forties, On The Road follows Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) as they and their colourful peers criss-cross America in search of truth, and happiness, and life.
There’s not much more to be said about the plot. Much like the book, the soul of Salles’ adaptation bobs about in the sea of frenetic, muscular, vital action the characters create for themselves. The narrative is free, and favours a vignette structure, a highlights package of sorts of the novel’s many threads. However, fans of Kerouac’s work will not be disappointed, even if the film has the potential to alienate the uninitiated. (Five people walked out of the screening I went to.)
The spirit of this particular hipster mainstay is represented astutely in On The Road. The film moves with gusto, barely pausing for breath, introducing (and consequently forgetting, forever) characters in the same scene. Dialogue is at times inaudible, the jazz (a crucial aspect of the novel) appears and reappears unexpectedly, and the soundtrack pulses and shakes almost continuously in the background, punctuating the narrative with music.
The thing is, it’s actually rather wonderful. Salles has created a worthy visual representation of the source material. He is unapologetic in his direction, letting shots run for just a few seconds longer than expected, allowing the audience to appreciate that landscape or this lingering look. He is not afraid to use the camera as another character, as an omniscient observer, gifting the viewer unique viewpoints. The period detail throughout the film is spot-on, even taking advantage of particular areas of present-day New York and San Fransisico to suit Salles’ vision.
The cast do a stellar job of representing much-loved characters, the portrayal of which must’ve been hard to get right, as the characters are also disguised versions of Kerouac’s real-life contemporaries (Sal is Kerouac himself, Dean being Neal Cassady, and Old Bull Lee, William Burroughs). Sam Riley plays Paradise with care, as the less mad of the film’s central pair, and provides the heart of the narrative. His accent (although extremely convincing as Kerouac) was ever-so-slightly off-putting at first, as it felt like a ‘performance’. The two real surprises, however, are Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx, (or, Allen Ginsberg), and, yes, I’ll admit it, Kristen Stewart as Marylou (LuAnne Henderson, Cassady’s first wife).
Sturridge embodies the verbosity and mental dexterity of Ginsberg perfectly, channeling the poet’s passion in his lifelong quest for truth and understanding. He is only on screen for the matter of a few minutes, all told, but makes his mark. Stewart, however, is a revelation. As someone whose only experience of the actress is from those vampire films, I went in with a hint of trepidation, eager for her to not mess it up. Fortunately, she nails it, convincing and entertaining as the impressionable young girl who simply adores her man.
The movie is peppered also with cameos from Viggo Mortenson, Terence Howard, Amy Adams and Steve Buscemi. All bring vital performances and important plot points, serving to enhance an already top quality cast.
But the beating heart of the film is Garrett Hedlund’s towering performance as Dean Moriarty. Poor Dean Moriarty, lost in the world. Flitting between a life with his children and his second wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst, in another affecting performance) and a wild life of abandon with Marylou, Dean hardly stops moving, worried he’ll miss something, like a shark with St. Vitus Dance. Dean represents the road for Sal. Dean is the compass. Dean is the brain. Dean is the heart. Dean is king of the people who ‘burn, burn, burn like roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.’ Hedlund’s portrayal is riveting, and the film could be commended on his effort alone.
Unfortunately, aspects of the novel had to be removed, to fit time constraints, but this and other limitations in no way sully the first (and, hopefully, only) adaptation of On The Road. The film is a joy. It is beautifully shot to complement the ever-changing American landscape, cleverly edited to represent the energetic pace of Kerouac’s story, and wondrously acted by a large but capable cast.
On The Road is a film destined to divide opinion. Purists will appreciate Salles’ careful adaptation, but moan about the parts left out and the poetic licence taken. Newcomers to the material may find it difficult to follow, as Salles is not in the business of spoon-feeding, but the rewards are unending with a little perseverance. For me, the former, it is highly recommended.
“But no matter, the road is life.”