It always seemed like it would be impossible to adapt Jack Kerouac’s sprawling, seminal, stream-of-consciousness novel about the freedom of the road and the adventures of Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty without losing some of the basis of the novel. Some of the feel; some of the freedom.
Over the years, there have been numerous attempts to make On the Road, perhaps the most important work from the Beat Generation, into a movie. There were a bunch of different casting choices, some of them seeming pretty good and interesting, and a whole bunch of different directors who were poised to stand behind the camera to bring this important work of American literature to the silver screen. But it never panned out, for differing reasons. One being that it was always too hard to get a story on the screen that could encompass what Kerouac penned in the early 1950’s, finally getting published in 1957.
On the Road is a book about escape and freedom. About getting away from what the world expects, and getting out there into America, or all the things that America can be, and looking for something else. Something better, perhaps, but something different. It is the desire for adventure.
Newly added to the Netflix lineup, the film adaptation of On the Road is worth a watch. The reviews for it are not surprisingly mixed, but the writers, director, and actors manage to do their best to bring life to the words in the book.
For those who don’t know, the story is basically about the struggling writer Sal Paradise (a thinly veiled version of Kerouac himself), and his travel adventures with his friends across America. Namely, with the crazy, adventurous, love-to-hate him and hate-to-love him Dean Moriarty. Throughout the story, they travel the country, getting themselves in a number of wild situations, always fueled by cigarettes, booze, and benzedrine. Our characters were willing to push the limits of what their bodies were able to handle, the amount of fun and craziness they could endure, but at the same time, their goals were often simpler. To see what their country really was.
The main characters are played by relative unknowns, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, but the supporting cast is filled with bigger name actors, who play minimal roles in the film. Kristen Stewart has a larger role as one of Dean’s girls, Marylou, and there are appearances by Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elizabeth Moss, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buschemi. A pretty good cast, but some of them are painfully underused. Our main actors do a good job, however. Riley, with his deep raspy, accented voice, brings a strong look to Paradise, allowing us to see him as an observer, a follower of Dean, never quite able to step into the foreground of his own life. Hedlund, as Moriarty, is able to bring the wild coolness that we could only expect of his character. He is charming and vicious, all at the same time, and it is difficult to watch him make poor choices that lead to his sad downfall towards the end of the film. He lives on the edge of his own crazed ideas, and he hooks those around him into his lifestyle. He is memorable to the point that all of those who know him will drop their lives, just because Dean is in town. He has created a legend for himself, and this comes across well with the casting of Hedlund.
Kristen Stewart, usually the sullen, mopey, teenager, excels in her role in this film. I would like to have seen more of Marylou, even though she was just a secondary character. A free spirit with simple values, Stewart bring life to her role, and it was nice to see her letting lose a little bit, away from her single expression used in the majority of her other films. To see Stewart laughing, smiling, and dancing during a great New Year’s Eve scene was something to behold, like we were truly seeing someone else on the screen instead of the famous Twilight actress we have become used to. She was good, and with the little screen time and dialogue she was offered, she was able to complete the character of Marylou. She seemed to embrace the character, the ex-wife of Dean, still drawn to him despite knowing that he would never stay with her. Stewart went all in for the role, doing her first nude scenes on film, which does help out who Marylou is.
The supporting cast is all strong, again, despite their miniature roles.
Some of the strengths of this film include the musical soundtrack, which is incredible at bringing to life the music of the Beat Generation, the thumping bass and angst-riddled saxaphone of the jazz bands, the pulsating tunes that helped guide Paradise on his adventures in sex and drugs. This would definitely be a soundtrack worth owning, it is that good. A highlight is the New Year’s party. A sweaty, drunken gathering, with blaring music, dancing, and singing along to songs. It defined the film, and put a stamp on the idea that for the people of the time, this was a defining moment in their lives.
As a defining moment in the film, however, one feels that it should have been as the title suggests: On the Road. While there was plenty of great, and well-shot scenes of the group being actually out hitchhiking, or driving, it seems that too much of this film was based in the confines that our characters were trying to escape. Perhaps they could have elaborated more on Sal’s days out picking cotton, instead of having him in houses, or apartments. This type of freedom is the very defining theme of the book, after all. Eventually, there is a fair amount of time spent in the car, literally on the road, but it feels like it could have been more about their discovery of America. For me, it seemed that the characters were always on their way somewhere, when reading the novel, I always felt that they had no agenda, and would get home whenever they ended up getting home. Perhaps this is only my interpretation of it, but on the ultimate road trip and journey of self-discovery, they didn’t really discover much about themselves. This is the point of an epic road trip, is it not?
There is little doubt that this novel would be difficult to turn into a film. But here, we have what I would call a pretty good version of it. Paradise struggles to write the book that he so dearly wants to create, Carlos Marx struggles to find his voice in his poetry, Dean leads a life of wildness that leaves him broken and alone, and Marylou is seeking a simple life of love and family among the craziness of the people she knows best, and loves the most. On the Road is probably only a film for those who have read the book. It would seem almost nonsensical for those who haven’t, especially as minor characters are thrown at us, and we are pretty much expected to know who they are, as we had met them first in the novel.
Watching this, you are not going to get the feeling and the passion of Kerouac on the screen. But there is something there, a feeling of the era, that is able to take us away. Not a perfect film, not a perfect film adaptation, but something worth watching.