As a longtime fan of the Jack Kerouac novel, I was a little nervous to see how this classic would translate to the screen. Much of the story’s charm inherently lies in Kerouac’s ability to perfectly capture the Beat Generation in his words. Anyone who would try to bring this novel to life on film would have an enormous undertaking. While director Walter Salles’ adaptation could have been much worse, I still did not love this film as much as I could have, and left feeling indifferently about it. Where the book is inspiring and made me want to hit the road, this film felt more like a long road trip than a fast-paced journey of geographical and personal exploration.
On the Road is based on Kerouac’s own experiences of the late 1940’s, a time of great change in America. It captures the beginnings of the “beat generation”, where artists were shedding society’s norm and were exploring freedom, expressionism and themselves. The film does manage to follow the book very closely. Sal, a New York author and the film’s narrator (and substitute for Kerouac himself) is enthralled by Dean Moriarty (based on Kerouac’s friend Neal Cassidy), a quintessential beatnik. He’s a cool, albeit troubled, guy. Sal decides to shed the life he knew in order to travel on the road with Dean and experience his version of post-war America. Sal’s voiceovers, quoting Kerouac’s novel, guide the audience through this world. We follow them on both a physical and emotional journey, where the characters are all aching for something, though it’s hard to know what that something is. Along the way, they meet and seduce many women, enjoy an array of drugs, and take in a lot of jazz. We see characters (like Carlo Marx, based on Allen Ginsberg) come in and out of their lives. They are trying to enjoy the world around them, while also trying to figure out their place in it. As time passes on, their relationship – and the relationships with those around them – starts to shift.
In my opinion, the visual imagery Salles created in this film is its strongest suit. There are gorgeous shots of the road and the scenery they pass along the way. The camerawork truly does feel as though it is capturing the travels and the moments the characters are living. It manages to be reminiscent of the 1940s and feel somewhat authentic. The mastering of this element could be due to the fact that Salles’ best-known work is The Motorcycle Diaries, another film about a road trip.
In terms of the cast, the leads were rather hit or miss for me. No one, in my opinion, perfectly captures the aura of the Beatniks. Sam Riley as Sal does a decent job, though his embodiment of the character feels a bit forced. Kristen Stewart as Marylou (Dean’s wife at the onset of the film) feels like Kristen Stewart – which will mean different things depending on the audience. I will say that this may be one of the better roles I have seen her in. With that said, this may not be a film for young Twihards, as there are some scenes depicting both sex and drug use.
Perhaps the best lead performance, and in the hardest of the roles, is Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty. The character itself is iconic, a true personification of the era and charismatic beyond belief. Hedlund is appealing and manages to convince the audience why someone would be drawn to him to the point of wanting to follow him on his adventures. Other great performances were given by actors with smaller cameo roles. Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams, Elisabeth Moss, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buscemi, among others, all make appearances that had left me wanting more.
Given the difficulty of adapting this classic novel, I think Salles did the best job he could. I personally cannot think of any suggestions of how to improve upon what he did. Perhaps On the Road was meant to be immortalized on the page and not on the screen.