Filming the ‘Unfilmable’: ‘On the Road’ Hits the Big Screen

Benjamin Wright


It has been more than 55 years since the publication of Jack Kerouac’s classic and definitive work, On the Road. The largely autobiographical novel tells the story of Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego) and Dean Moriarty (the fictional Neal Cassady) and their adventures on the road in the post-war 1940s, infused with jazz, drugs, booze and sex, always seeking IT and being chased down by time.


This work of prose, in conjunction with Allen Ginsberg’s poem, “Howl,” epitomized the writings of the Beat generation. Over the years, On the Road has achieved much worthy praise, is often considered among the best English-language novels ever written and has been long considered a must-read for American youths in their teens and early 20s. As a novel, despite some early mixed reviews, it has been long recognized as a work of significant cultural importance. It has also been characterized as a largely “unfilmable” work.


There have been many failed attempts to bring On the Road to the silver screen by U.S. filmmakers. Francis Ford Coppola, who purchased the rights to the screenplay in 1979, tried several times to adapt the work into film, but his efforts never materialized. “I never knew how to do it,” he remarked when Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles accepted the cumbersome task of filming the unfilmable. It was Salles (best known for the Motorcycle Diaries, another road film) that Coppola finally trusted to make On the Road a reality, with a screenplay developed by José Rivera.


The strength of Salles’ interpretation lies largely in the cinematography – thanks to cinematographer Eric Gautier, also known for his work on Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries and Sean Penn’s Into the Wild – the sepia-toned shots and the capturing of the open road, the sprawling freedom of the American landscape of the 1940s. But the latter pales in comparison with other works that do the same, like Easy Rider or The Motorcycle Diaries, and is not strong enough to counter the at times lackluster retelling and the over-emphasis on sex and drugs, which though an important part of the original, seem to be awarded greater prominence in the film, lacking any real context. The acting, with two notable exceptions – Garret Hedlund (as Dean Moriarty) and Viggo Mortensen (as Old Bull Lee, Kerouac’s fictional characterization of William Burroughs) – is adequate, but easily forgettable.


Hedlund captures Dean’s wild spirit and his madness, his semi-destructive passion for life and living in the moment, but he fails to elicit much sympathy. Without reading the book first, it is difficult to understand in the film what it is about Dean that gives him the ability to make people, especially Sal Paradise, inspired to jump over and even knock down the hurdles that society has erected on the road of life and to zip back and forth across the country. Unlike Dean Moriarty in the novel, Hedlund’s portrayal of the character doesn’t have the same captivating allure – his passion for living in the moment seems damaging less than inspiring.


In the novel, Dean Moriarty is a contradiction of sorts, but in the film he comes across as a one-dimensional conman. But it’s Mortensen’s bit performance that really steals the show – Mortensen so captures the drawl and persona of Burroughs that it is easy to forget that one is watching an actor in a film and not a William Burroughs home movie. Though Old Bull Lee only appears briefly in Kerouac’s novel, Mortensen’s portrayal in the film is so convincing that it is easy to wish he were the star, and the film were a biopic about William Burroughs. But, of course, then it wouldn’t be On the Road.


 The performances of Sam Riley (Sal Paradise), Kristen Stewart (Marylou), Kirsten Dunst (Camille) and Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx; the fictional Ginsberg) are not terrible, but neither are they particularly noteworthy. It is a struggle at times to buy Sam Riley as Sal; Sturridge captures the poetic Marx, but his obsession with Dean comes across as creepy; and Kristen Stewart, though she brings a certain sullen sexiness to the role of Marylou, often seems detached and, consequently, unbelievable in the role (there are some exceptions, such as the fun and raucous scene with Marylou and Dean dirty dancing to Charlie Parker’s “Salt Peanuts,” but these are rare).


Though there were some minor efforts to incorporate Kerouac’s passionate and explosive prose into the film (such as the gravelly, whisky-voiced Riley delivering the iconic lines, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars . . . .”), there wasn’t enough of this. With less emphasis on the magic of the words and the essence of the main characters, their longings and their struggles against time and their search for meaning in the post-war U.S. of the 1940s, and with more explicit focus on the sex lives and drug uses of the main characters (devoid of much meaningful context), the plot seems not only like somewhat of a betrayal to the text, but it also comes across at times as dull, wandering and unfulfilled.


Also lacking are some of the memorable characters, like Remi Boncœur – the “tall, dark, handsome Frenchman” whose favorite insult is “Dostioffski” [Dostoevsky] – his early part in the book is absent from the film, and he appears only briefly at the end.


In all, Salles delivers some remarkable shots of Sal Paradise’s “life on the road,” impressive for a film with budgetary constraints (the budget was $25 million, but included in the production costs were payments to many of those involved in earlier, unsuccessful efforts to create the film over the past 45 years). Financial issues made it impossible to film in certain cities during inclement weather and also led to pay cuts for the actors. Kristen Stewart, for instance, accepted a $200,000 salary for the film after the budget was cut from $35 million to $25 million, a fraction of what she made in the Twilight films ($2 million for the first film in the series and $12.5 million for each of the Breaking Dawn installments). She was signed on four years ago, when Salles first accepted the project, and claimed to have stuck with it because of her strong affection for Kerouac’s novel, a shared affinity among many of the film’s stars.

When one adds to all of these other problems issues with distribution, it appears that Salles’ efforts may have been perhaps better abandoned at an earlier stage of the production – like other failed attempts to film Kerouac’s classic. While On the Road premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May of 2012, the film’s release date was repeatedly delayed and it did not reach U.S. audiences on a semi-mass scale until December 2012, when it was released in New York and Los Angeles for a limited time screening. After a couple of weeks the film was pulled from theatres and was subsequently released on IFC films video on-demand. To date it has brought in less than $9 million in box office revenue, with roughly $700,000 in domestic ticket sales. Although it is considered a classic American novel, the film has struggled to find appreciation with U.S. audiences. The film is set to be released on Blu-Ray and DVD on July 30, 2013. 


Despite some strengths in cinematography, a wonderful soundtrack, and a few remarkable scenes and performances (notably Hedlund and Mortensen, but with some fine scenes featuring Stewart and Sturridge), the film lacks in depth and plot. It may very well be that Kerouac’s classic 1957 work is “unfilmable,” and Salles’ attempt may be as good as any (there is not really much to compare it against), but the film, overall, lacks what the novel does with language – something that cannot be easily translated to the silver screen – and it pays too much attention to the superficial elements of the novel, missing much of the work’s central meaning.


It glosses over the very important spiritual element of Sal Paradise and Sal and Dean’s search for meaning (against the forces of time and societal backlash) in the post-war culture of the 1940s, as they bounced back and forth across the free and expansive American landscape and penetrated the country’s southern border. The characters come across like caricatures, lacking depth and substance and, unlike Kerouac’s Sal and Dean, the film portrayals are difficult to sympathize with on a meaningful level. Salles’ work deserves recognition for effort, particularly against much adversity, but one can’t help but feel that it failed to live up to its potential.


Author Bio:

Benjamin Wright is a contributing writer at Highbrow Magazine.

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