A novel that defined a country’s generation, On the Road by Jack Kerouac, was meant to be unfilmable. Despite numerous attempts, the sheer rawness and honesty was thought never to be replicated on film. This has been proved right – but not without a good attempt first.
Walter Salles certainly seemed the right man for the job; director of the exemplary The Motorcycle Dairies, this could have been very much the North American companion piece to that. But somewhere on the way up, the journey didn’t go quite pan out.
Narrated by Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), the story centres on him as a budding writer in 1947 who travels to various places across America after meeting hedonistic and fearless Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and his young girlfriend Marylou (Kristen Stewart). This shapes and takes him through defining moments in his young life, experiencing the highs and lows of what it is to live a free-spirited life.
Based on Kerouc’s own personal experiences through Sal, this adaption is more sexually explicit and less coherent than the source material. It tries hard to duplicate the embodiment of Kerouc’s writing, and somewhat succeeds, in part to do with the actors being allowed to freely delve into character.
A lukewarm reception has followed, though. It would be unfair to have any preconceived ideas of what to expect because, as a stand-alone film, this is an enjoyable ride. Seeing Sal, Dean and Marylou bond on the road (and in more ways than one) is the main strength of the film.
But if you have read the book, it will be a disappointment. That won’t detract from the positives that can be taken though; Walter Salles has crafted stunning images of the American landscape and his attention to detail cannot be faulted. Garrett Hedlund is superb as the irrepressible Dean Moriarty, in what is no doubt a career-defining performance, and Kristen Stewart simply smoulders as the sultry Marylou. Credit to her for taking on a role far removed from what she’s associated with.
However, there are some other niggly issues which you just can’t escape. Viggo Mortesen’s role as Old Bull Lee is little more than a cameo, and along with Alice Braga, Amy Adams and, to a lesser extent, Kirsten Dunst, these essential characters in the book bear little importance here. You can’t shake the feeling, like in most adaptations, that the film requires them to be there as a checklist. And that, of course, is not how it should be; there has to be a need rather than a want.
The last criticism is of the main character, Sal Paradise. Sam Riley is undoubtedly a great actor, and here he follows other British thespians playing iconic Americans (Daniel Day Lewis as Lincoln, Christian Bale as Bruce Wayne, Andrew Garfield as Peter Parker). Whether it is the fault of the script, he fails in capturing the personification of Sal. You can’t help but think it needed someone with a bit more charisma, one who could suck the audience into his life, just as Dean has done with him.
It won’t inspire those to travel and explore like the book did, but the underlying meaning of choices that we make – in love, friendship, happiness – and the consequences of those, is what truly hits home. The message, the look, the feel – it’s all there.
It’s a shame then that this will go further unnoticed with the release in the same year of another critically-acclaimed book deemed impossible to adapt, Life of Pi. Nevertheless, On the Road already has its place in literary history – only the film, sadly, will be left by the wayside.
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