Almost since its publication in 1957, there have been efforts to make Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel On the Road into a film. Kerouac himself tried to entice Brando to play Dean Moriarity, and later, riding high on his many early successes, Francis Ford Coppola tried (and tried again and again) to get the film made, but nothing happened. Like The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road seemed fated to never see the silver screen. Truthfully, it’s just better that way sometimes.
Most likely, if you’ve finished high school, you’ve read On the Road. It’s a fortuitous novel, almost biography of the birth of a new generation, the Beats, with Kerouac and his notepad there at the beginning for the reckless, bloody, pot and Benzedrine induced birth. It’s a meandering cross country masterpiece of ambitious aimlessness spilled out over 320 pages (or 120 feet of scroll), a statement of intent as much as a piece of personal journalism. It’s a story of madness and addiction of every kind — from drugs, to love to people — a photograph built with words of the first misfit beaks poking through the delicate white shell of post-war conformity.
The film was never going to capture anything close to that. The fact that it took over 50 years to get any real traction on the project that was such a passion for people of a certain age should have spelled that out pretty plainly. Even a good film would suffer from the comparison to the novel, but Salles and writer Jose Rivera have not corralled the text — no one could, that’s sort of the point of the text. Aimlessness of any stripe plays perfectly in novel form, it’s where writers can really stretch their legs out and roam free in the garden of beautiful passages and striking metaphors. In film, where people are less patient, aimlessness is almost a cross to bear. Very few directors have pulled it off, and even though both executive producer Coppola (in Apocalypse Now) and director Salles (in The Motorcycle Diaries) have done it in the past, it’s a hard ask for a second strike at the magic of aimlessness, especially lugging so much history and behind the scenes gossip around as baggage.
Garret Hedlund somewhat surprisingly makes for an excellent Dean, Neal Cassady’s stand-in. The best Beat writing was always Neal’s mad rambling letters to Kerouac and Hedlund captures the manic spirit of those letters. You want to be his friend, even though his friendship comes in the form of a consuming cyclone. It was the only role that needed to be gotten right, and it was, but Tom Sturridge and Carlo Marx (Allen Ginsberg) and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs) also steal a little bit of the spotlight. It’s a shame that everyone is spending so much time focusing on Kristen Stewart, who really doesn’t have much to do in the film. The film doesn’t belong to Mary Lou, it belongs to Dean, and to a lesser extent Kerouac’s stand-in, Sal Paradise, played by Sam Reilly in a basically forgettable performance.
Try as I might I could not separate the film from its source material. It’s unfair, but those are the breaks when it comes to generational adaptations. Sometimes a picture is just not worth 1,000 words, especially not Kerouac’s words.