Anyone expecting to see a “faithful” adaptation of Jack Kerouac‘s groundbreaking 1957 autobiographical novel On the Road in this film adaptation directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), as if that could be possible, will be disappointed. However, a bigger shame is that anyone who has little knowledge about the landmark novel will walk away from this film wondering what all the praise for the novel is all about.
There is a reason why no other film adaption of On the Road has ever come to fruition in the fifty-five years since the novel was published. Filming a work initially produced in prose inherently separates the story from the words, and the praise for On The Road (the novel) focuses on Kerouac’s brilliant use of language and writing style. While the characters’ dialogue and some voiceover excerpts in the film recall the original’s use of language, it is only a faint echo.
Though it’s possible to adapt “wordy” books like Lord of the Rings into film by playing up the action sequences and other dramatic aspects, the plot of On the Road doesn’t lend itself to the same treatment. After all, the plot of the novel itself isn’t particularly groundbreaking, and had the same storyline been written by a lesser writer the book wouldn’t even be a historical footnote. Sal Paradise (AKA Kerouac, portrayed by Sam Reilly) is a writer searching for material for his next novel when his friend Carlo Marx (AKA poet Allen Ginsberg, portrayed by Tom Sturridge) introduces him to Dean Moriarty (AKA Neal Cassady, portrayed by Garrett Hedlund). Moriarty is a handsome, affable man who shuns all responsibility in order to pursue “kicks” — that is, the pursuit of sexual, drug and alcohol induced pleasure. In other words, Moriarty is a great guy to have over to be the life of a party but the worst person to expect to help with the clean-up afterward. Paradise decides to hit the road to search for inspiration, and as he crisscrosses America his path frequently crosses with Moriarty and his companions — first his sixteen year-old wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and later his second wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst), among others — as he travels. But Paradise fails to realize that Moriarty is ultimately a selfish, wounded individual in the never-ending pursuit of pleasure as he continues to run off on his responsibilities to his friends and various lovers.
There’s a lot more to the novel than the above plot of the movie, but major characters from the novel have been excised or combined from the book in order to produce this two-hour adaptation. Likewise, many sequences from the novel are entirely omitted. What remains are mostly scenes of sex, drug, and alcohol use, which after the first hour makes it feel like it is an artsy version of American Pie. The cast, mostly in their late twenties and early thirties, handle their parts well, especially Hedlund as the capricious, yet gregarious Moriarty. But veteran actors Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, and Steve Buscemi appear in brief roles, and their charisma overwhelms the young cast.
Unfortunately, in this movie all eyes are on Twilight star Kristen Stewart as the sixteen year-old Marylou. Her part is expanded from the novel by being combined with another character, but that still doesn’t give Stewart much to do except talk about sex and have sex. Those calling this role a “breakthrough” for Stewart are mistaken, and just because this film is adapted from a work of literature considered to be infinitely better than Twilight doesn’t mean it brings her any more prestige. She does nothing wrong here to make you exclaim “she can’t act!”, but her role is limited enough that she is only billed third because of her fame. However, there is a sequence of Marylou and Moriarty dancing that drifts in and out of slow motion that is simply laughable — but Stewart can only be blamed for the awful dancing, not the decision to make it a key sequence.
The film loses steam after the first hour because the sex, drugs, and jazz goes on and on at a particular pace. This film isn’t like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas in which the insanity keeps building (nor should it be). But instead it flatlines as the inevitable conflict between Moriarty and Paradise builds at a snail’s pace. Salles is obviously a talented director and he gets the late 1940s atmosphere right, but he and screenwriter Jose Rivera (who adapted The Motorcycle Diaries but also wrote schlock like Letters to Juliet) had an impossible task put before them by executive producer Francis Ford Coppola. Nonetheless, I would say that the filmmakers and talented cast have done just about the best they could’ve done with the material since it doesn’t lend well at all to film, but that is a backhanded compliment at best.
It’s impossible not to wonder what Kerouac and his Beat Generation contemporaries would think of this adaptation, and while I wouldn’t go as far as use the “rolling over in his grave” cliche, especially since Kerouac tried to set up an adaptation himself with Marlon Brando as Moriarty and himself in the Paradise role. But I highly doubt it would have been anything like this.
Rating: A brave attempt at the impossible task of adapting a non-cinematic novel, but ultimately a well-attempted failure (5.5/10).