On Friday, December 14, I attended a special sneak preview of On the Road at IFC Center in Greenwich Village. It was history in the making. At long last, Jack Kerouac’s seminal road novel had made its way to the silver screen. Kerouac himself wrote a lot about going to the movies, and he wanted his novel turned into a film. In fact, he even wrote to Marlon Brando, asking him to buy it and star in it.
Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights decades ago. I have a friend who wrote a screenplay that he showed to Coppola, and there have been numerous actors associated with the film adaptation, but the project always seemed to stall. Finally, Walter Salles came on as director and Jose Rivera as screenwriter, and soon after an impressive cast lined up, and the film looked like it would finally take off. And it did! It debuted at Cannes Film Festival in May 2012. Throughout the summer and into the fall, the film showed at theatres across Europe and South America. Those of us in the States read reviews, watched clips, argued about whether the novel could be adapted for film in a successful way, and debated the choices for the cast while we waited for the quintessential American story to come to us. At long last, when it was announced that a sneak preview of On the Road was taking place in the neighborhood Kerouac used to hang out in, people lined up on the Avenue of Americas for a chance to see it. As my good friend Elizabeth and I waited in line, an older man offered us $50 for our movie tickets. Considering we were so excited we were taking photos to commemorate the event, we probably weren’t the best people to try to scalp from. Needless to say, I watched the film, and, for whatever it’s worth, I can now give you my review of On the Road, which opens in New York and LA on December 21 and the rest of the country in January.
Let me start with a caveat: I am perhaps a bit too close to the subject matter to review On the Road objectively. After all, I am writing a book about the true story of On the Road. I have also heard and read reviews by a few other Beat scholars and fans and watched many Youtube clips from the film. I came in with lots of preconceived notions, and I watched the film more as a critic than as your average moviegoer. That said, I did not go into it as a literary snob wanting it to fail. I came into it wanting to see Kerouac’s work done justice.
On the Road is wonderfully nuanced. And to me, it’s the nuances in the acting, directing, and screenwriting that make On the Road a worthwhile adaptation of the novel. Everyone involved in the film understood that Kerouac’s novel is not just about some crazy kids driving at high speeds across the country, getting high, and getting laid. They understood that depicting this wild behavior — the film does not censor anything — was necessary not for shock value but because it underscores the complexity of the characters. In particular, the film does justice to the theme of the loss of fathers. Burning Furiously Beautiful, the book I’m coauthoring, delves into the personal life stories of the real-life people the characters are based on, giving further insight into their behavior and lifestyle. Understanding the characters’ back story elucidates their desires and actions, and the film adaptation neither glorifies nor critiques the characters. It gives them space to reveal themselves to the viewer.
Interestingly, the character that fell flat to me was the character of Sal Paradise, based on Jack Kerouac and played by Sam Riley. The actor, screenwriter, and director did a great job showing him to be an observer, which was true to Kerouac’s nature. However, the film itself was not seen through Sal’s eyes. He seemed like just another character. The landscape, the jazz shows, the parties were depicted through a neutral perspective. Not only did this make it difficult to understand Sal’s motivations and character — this is most evident in the scene with Terry (“the Mexican girl”), which isn’t developed enough for us to understand why it’s included — it meant we lost his voice. While critics over the years have focused on the road trip antics, for me, the strength of the novel was its insanely beautiful poetry. The film adaptation was more about the story and less about the literature.
Overall, though, the dialogue for the characters and the acting was phenomenal. Viggo Mortensen needs to star in a biopic on William S. Burroughs. Amy Adams took on the persona of Jane. Kristen Stewart brought a depth to Marylou that Kerouac himself didn’t. Kirsten Dunst showed great emotion in her scenes. Tom Sturridge played Carlo Marx with intensity but also surprising humor; his dialogue was quintessential Ginsberg: dramatic and over the top. Elisabeth Moss’ Galatea was a nice contrast to the other characters, while Danny Morgan’s Ed was a bit too goofy; these two characters are the reason the characters end up at Old Bull Lee and Janes’s place, but if it weren’t for that they could’ve been edited out for the film. Garrett Hedlund was charismatic. He lit up the screen.
My most pressing criticism of the film is that it felt a bit too much like a period piece for my personal preference. I was impressed that the film was historically accurate, and yet I found myself distracted by those details. For example, when the focus was on the exterior of the Hudson, it made the story feel removed instead of vibrant; yet the shots within the car or from the viewpoint of the passenger were beautiful. Likewise, there were times when the wallpaper in a room jumped out at me more than it probably should have. I’m by no means suggesting the story should have been modernized, but the setting and props should not overpower the story. There were also scenes like the one at the jazz club which felt staged, almost cartoonish. I would’ve liked something a bit more raw, a bit grittier or impressionist.
In contrast, the New Year’s Eve party was sheer brilliance. Here were fast cuts and disorienting angles. Here were sweat and thrashing limbs. Here was jazz you wanted to dance to. Here was the energy that made you want to shout go, go, go! There were also beautiful quiet moments laced throughout the film. Poetic landscape. Honest heart-to-hearts. Subtle glances. Almost any time the characters were on the road, the dialogue, the filmography, and the acting were spot on.
The film adaptation of On the Road may enlighten some people’s perception of Jack Kerouac.