The novel On the Road really does go way beyond its status as “classic literature.” This is a book that, to this day, 55 years after its initial publication, inspires its readers to go in search of a better and more fulfilled life. For people who came of age in the '60s, its rejection of the status quo and its embrace of experimentation was especially powerful and groundbreaking. It was really the founding manifesto of the Beat Generation, and the Modern Library lists it at number 55 on its list of the 100 Greatest English Language Novels of the 20th Century. It’s far more than just a book. It’s a book that changed American culture.
Full disclosure: I’ve started reading it several times but never finished it.
Kerouac wrote about road trips with his friends that would define their generation. His famous friends would go on to be Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg, and William S. Burroughs.
Sal Paradise (the Kerouac stand-in played by Sam Riley) is a creatively frustrated novelist with writer's block. He is drawn to a young man named Dean Moriarty (the Cassady doppelganger played by Garrett Hedlund). Dean is the very essence of the free-spirit, roaming the country and experimenting with pretty much everything. Dean has recently married a 16-year-old girl named Marylou (Twilight’s Kristen Stewart) but seems to have other “wives” in virtually every major American city. Restless by nature, Sal hits the road, first to meet up with Dean in Denver and then throughout North America.
As a film, On the Road languished in development hell for literal decades. So, it’s obvious that it was made with a great deal of passion and much of that makes it onto the screen. The cast is uniformly very good. If you only know Hedlund from Tron: Legacy, you’re going to really be introduced to him here. Tron didn’t give him much to do; it was a movie primarily about special effects. He’s really good here and playing one of the most famous literary characters of the 20th Century must have been pretty daunting. Dean is, in many ways, a pretty horrible person, but Hedlund really captures Dean’s innate likeability and curiosity about the world. You totally understand why people would be taken in by him and continue to forgive his selfish behavior. While Stewart’s role is smaller, it does give a great suggestion that there’s more to her than Bella Swan. Her woodenness in Twilight seems more the blame of horrendous material to play as opposed to a lack of talent on her part. Riley is fine as Sal, but the movie is more about his point of view than it is him as a character; we’re seeing these people and events through Sal’s eyes.
Praise should also be heaped on director Salles’ collaborative team (cinematographer Eric Gautier, costumer Danny Glicker, production designer Carlos Conti, and composer Gustavo Santaolalla). They have recreated the late '40s and early '50s in a way that is completely immersive. This is a lived-in world that feels completely authentic. This isn’t a cartoon world like we saw in The Help. The movie looks, feels, and sounds great.
The problems are the film’s pace and length. When you read a book, you have the power to put it down and come back to it later. A feature film is supposed to be consumed in one sitting. On the Road is lacking in any kind of narrative thrust and most of its episodes are very redundant. I think this often happens when revered material gets the movie treatment. Nobody has the guts to make the changes needed to make the material work as a movie. It’s based on a book that’s essentially about meandering, and it’s resulted in a meandering film that just feels longer than it actually is. On the Road may very well work better on television, where you do have the power to pause it and come back to it later. Maybe a better approach might have been to make the movie about Kerouac himself writing the novel, rather than just a straight-up adaptation of the book.
Another thing that hampered my viewing is a problem often associated with independent films; in order to secure financing, name actors are often cast in small roles that really don’t amount to much more than glorified cameos. Amy Adams, Terrence Howard, Viggo Mortensen, and Steve Buscemi all show up, and it’s usually startling when they do. They’re all great actors, but having them show up for five minutes and then disappear really took me out of the movie.
On the Road is classic and important literature, but, despite a lot of fine work, it just hasn’t translated well to the screen.