It's generally considered a truism that great novels tend to make indifferent films, and it's not difficult to see why. The denser and more highly-wrought a textual narrative, the less amenable it is to a single, exclusively visual interpretation. Conversely, the greater a story's reliance on non-allusive, unreflective action, the more chance it has of translating directly to the screen. Those few major novels which have also made seriously good films without exception required screenwriter and director to reimagine both original text and their own respective arts to create something different from, but in some way equivalent to the original.
I doubt that anyone these days would seriously challenge the status of "On The Road" as a great novel. It revolutionised English prose, articulated an identifiably American sensibility that was reaching for the universal, and extended an existing literary tradition or two, at the same time as laying the ground for much subsequent experimentation in literary, poetic, and journalistic writing. It is also one of those rare books which literally does change lives. So in attempting to film it, Walter Salles must have known he was setting himself up to fail quite badly in the eyes of those hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people who know, love, and have their own complex and multifaceted response to Kerouac's 1950s masterpiece.
Salles opts wisely to begin by placing “On the Road” firmly in the tradition of Kerouac's acknowledged forebears, those painters of continental restlessness Thomas Wolfe & John Steinbeck. The instant ability of film to reveal landscape and the configurations of people framing and inhabiting it , combined with the use of hobo folk song as a soundtrack to rapidly-cut scenes of cross-country travel, delivers a depth of historic backstory with an economy a novelist might envy. Claustrophobic, scruffy domestic interiors and dull urban lots are set against this Great Outdoors of light and weather. And as Sal Paradise, Kerouac's surrogate, Sam Riley in voiceover sounds convincingly worldweary in a way only a very young person can. It's a great set-up.
In narrative terms, Salles has evidently tried to remain as faithful as possible to the overall structure of Kerouac’s novel, while teasing out certain themes and implications that were dormant – even unacknowledged – in the original published version of 1957. Some of these, notably the strong homoerotic bond between Sal, Dean Moriarty, and Carlo Marx, were present in the legendary manuscript ‘scroll’ from which this was culled, finally published in its entirety 50 years later. More interestingly, though, the automatic 1940s misogyny of the male dramatis personae, of which even Keroauc was probably blithely unaware as he wrote, is cleverly counterpointed by the building-up into characters of some of the women, who feature as little more than sketches in either version of his text. Kristen Stewart – hitherto best known for the clunking, bloodless vampire Bella in the Twilight films – demonstrates astonishingly that she can actually act, putting in a finely-tuned performance as Dean’s sexually-exploited and emotionally-abused teenage wife Marylou. As Dean’s other marital partner-cum-victim Camille, Kirsten Dunst is given a couple of extra scenes to demonstrate the frustration and anger of being a female foil to the glorified adolescent male-bonding culture unthinkingly celebrated by Kerouac. It’s a thoughtful and effective call. In one of those moments where film can offer an instant insight that might take a novelist hundreds of words to lay out, Sal and Dean toast “The old men and the West” above the sleeping, ignored body of Marylou.
Garrett Hedlund’s Dean, monster of egotism though he is, retains the seductiveness and charm which undoubtedly motivated Kerouac to centre On the Road around his original, Neal Cassady. Hedlund’s laconic, Midwestern delivery carries off dialogue I’ve always thought might sound slightly arch, even hysterical, if spoken aloud. Also, for a character written so much larger-than-life, he augments this with a subtle range of facial expression, emphasised in the shaky close-up of certain intimate, interior scenes between Dean, Sal, Carlo, and the occasional disposable woman. Tom Sturridge’s longsuffering Carlo personifies the undercurrent of sexual frustration, undeclarable love, & jealousy of Dean which Kerouac himself persistently refuses to acknowledge, except indirectly. It is also a convincing and endearing portrait of a young Allen Ginsberg.
Perhaps the main philosophical strand in On the Road is one which Kerouac’s later interest in Buddhism would more fully explore, that of the busyness of everyday life and its corollary in eternity – stasis, silence, the Void. A fear of placelessness, and the endless, contradictory putting of oneself in different places in order to try and avoid this, is periodically revisited in Salles’s film, as in Kerouac’s book. There is a recurring quotation from Proust, and the melancholy visualisation of lonely Midwestern small towns at sunset, seen from hotel rooms where you know neither where nor who you are.
If, then, a film had to be made of On the Road, this one will do very well. It respects the text, while refusing to collude with some of the more obvious elisions engaged in by the author. It also manages to strike a realistic balance between the romanticism of youthful restlessness – which I think is something most of us fall for the first time we read Kerouac – and the more squalid, selfish side of those characters for whom we have fallen. It even allows itself the obvious metaphor, in its closing sequences, of envisaging the ribbon of paper on which Kerouac typed his first draft – the legendary ‘scroll’ – as The Road itself. But since that’s one that the author himself invented (“rolled it out on floor and it looks like a road” he said in a letter to Cassady in 1951) it’s probably still OK.