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On the Road: An Overlooked Gem

Written by: Pat King, Special to CC2K


With two more movies coming out later this year based on the lives and literature of the Beat Generation, I thought it would be good to give On The Road, Walter Salles’ adaptation of the most famous novel of that era, another look. Released last month on DVD, the film made the festival rounds last year and was in wide release early in 2013. The next two movies in this unofficial 2013 Beat trilogy are John Krokidas’ Kill Your Darlings (in wide release on September 16th) and Michael Polish’s Big Sur (in wide release November 1st).

I think On The Road is a very good movie, though I’m clearly in the minority here. Sure, it has its flaws, mostly having to do with the acting, but does it really deserve a middling six out of ten stars on the Internet Movie Database? Or the unbelievably low 44% score on Rotten Tomatoes? I think the movie deserves a much better than average rating.

As any current or former hepcat knows, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is one of three centerpiece works of Beat Generation literature. The other two books, Howl by Allen Ginsberg and Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs have already been loosely adapted into films. There have been plans for a movie version of On The Road since the book came out. Kerouac himself famously sent a letter to Marlon Brando asking him to play Sal Paradise, the character from the novel that Kerouac based on himself. However, executive producer Francis Ford Coppola has been trying in earnest to get a movie made since 1979, with various writers, directors and casts. It’s been a long time coming. So long, in fact, that the movie has been in development for longer than most of the main cast have been alive.

Screenwriter Jose Rivera, who also adapted The Motorcycle Diaries for Salles, had a hell of a task. Not only was he charged with adapting one of the most beloved novels of the 20th Century, a book that had influenced and changed the lives of generations of romantics, young and old, but he also had to make sure it stayed within an acceptable runtime for a theatrically released film. Although I thought the movie could have used another half hour or so, the two hour runtime worked well enough and probably helped the box office receipts. Hopefully there will be a time when On The Road will get a proper miniseries adaptation. But as long as it was to be a feature film, whether it ran for two, three or even four hours, there would still have to be a lot of material that would have to be cut. No matter what Rivera did, someone’s feelings were bound to get hurt, someone’s favorite scene bound to get cut.

But you have to go into the thing knowing that not every scene could make it. The book’s narrative is simply too sprawling, too richly detailed, to show everything. As it stands, I was totally happy with the story we were left with. The essential themes were still there.

The novel’s plot, however loose, concerns the real-life adventures of Jack Kerouac and his friends as they roam the country looking for sex, drugs, jazz and God. For legal reasons, Kerouac’s publishers made him change everyone’s names. So Kerouac gave them (the male friends, at least) goofy, funny, sweet names like “Sal Paradise” (Kerouac), “Dean Moriarty” (Neal Cassady) and “Carlo Marx” (Allen Ginsberg). What this meant was that the film’s actors had a two-fold task: they needed to portray fictional characters while staying true to the real-life history. No easy task.

Although there’s really no great standout performances, all the actors do just fine. Garret Hedlund plays a very subdued Dean Moriarty. Thomas Jane came much closer to the real-life Neal Cassady in The Last Time I Committed Suicide. Cassady, or “Cowbody Neal” as the hippies would later call him, was a Benzedrine addict. He was a speed freak. Hedlund should have put a lot more energy into his performance. Or maybe Walter Salles convinced him to tone down the hyperactivity. Either way, it was one of the movie’s biggest flaws..

Still, there are a few scenes that show off Dean Moriarty’s manic side. There are some pretty wild scenes where Moriarty is behind the wheel of a car, going over a hundred miles an hour on a poorly-maintained road in the middle of nowhere. In the novel, Moriarty is supposed to be the Benzedrine-taking Christ figure. (Benzedrine was probably the Beats’ favorite drug. An amphetamine that kept you awake and alert for hours or even days has a certain appeal to budding writers.) In the movie, Moriarty and Sal Paradise are portrayed basically as equals, which was a mistake. Sal Paradise absolutely worshiped Moriarty’s “freedom.” He was Moriarty’s disciple.

Sam Riley, however, is great as the young Sal Paradise. The only real gripe I had is something a few other reviewers, mostly Beat Generation scholars, have noticed: that Riley is just kind of a plain fella. Look at a picture of Kerouac in his late-twenties or early thirties and you see that he had actual movie star good looks. It wouldn’t have been much of a stretch had Marlon Brando ever answered Kerouac’s letter and agreed to play Sal Paradise. Putting that aside, however, Riley makes an excellent Kerouac. Certainly the best I’ve seen. Kerouac wasn’t the bouncing-off-the-walls manic type like Cassady. Sure, he liked a good, insane, drug and booze-fueled party and, like everyone else around him, he took Benzedrine too, but he was much more the sensitive observer who pines for adventure and romance. He wasn’t a leader. He went with the flow, always watching, observing, taking notes. We see all of this in Hedlund’s portrayal of Sal Paradise. There’s a mystical quality about him that’s totally appropriate.

Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst are the closest thing this movie has to leading ladies. But it’s not their fault. Their roles were flat from the beginning. Consider the source: While Kerouac gives his male characters creative, fun names, he gives the female characters names like “Marylou” and “Camille.” Real inventive, right? Well, Kerouac and the rest of the early Beat Generation largely overlooked the women in their lives. To them, women were either objects of lust or romantic muses. It was a strange attitude for a group of men who questioned and rebelled against just about every other form of social norm, especially as it related to drug use and sexuality. So Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst didn’t really have a lot to work with. They did the best they could with the material available, which certainly wasn’t much.

While the acting might be a mixed bag, the novel’s major themes are kept intact. Unconventional religious experiences are really at the core of the book and Rivera and Salles were right to keep this as the almost single-minded focus of the movie. Shortly after their first meeting, we see Sal Paradise and Neal Cassady discussing their fathers. Sal’s father is dead but Dean’s father has been missing since he was a kid. Dean’s father was a hobo and an alcoholic, so he’s most likely dead. But since this is unconfirmed, there’s still hope, however small, that Dean might still find him. It’s not too much of a stretch, I don’t think, to see this as really a conversation about the big Father and Sal’s and Dean’s road adventures as a metaphorical journey to find Him. Even though the Moriarty character is much more subdued in this film version, it’s still clear that he’s a sort of Dionysus / Christ figure for Sal Paradise. Someone Sal literally follows around the country, worshiping.

If the next two Beat movies coming out this year even partially compare to the artistic success of On The Road, I think that us latter-day Beatniks will be happy indeed with this unofficial trilogy. After all, we’ll get glimpses of the beginning (Kill Your Darlings), the middle (On The Road) and the end (Big Sur) of the very brief time in history when the Beats used each other as inspiration to create a new and lasting literature.

Author: Pat King, Special to CC2K

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