On The Road, On The Screen
by: Kate Messinger
October 25, 2012
I can personally blame Jack Kerouac for instilling that unitchable urge I get every few months to pack a backpack with only a flannel shirt and ten turkey sandwiches, bury my iPhone somewhere in Long Island, and hitchhike my way across the country completely alone with no real destination in mind. It’s nearly impossible now, in a world of GPS and overly skeptical drivers, to pull off the cross country adventure that Kerouac half fictionally wrote about in the beat era novel On The Road, but that idea (leaving everything and everyone you know to chase a story or a feeling you hope is located in California or Mexico or New York City or somewhere in between) is still as tempting as it was in the 1940′s. And now the journey continues with the much anticipated film adaptation directed by Walter Salles, with executive producer Francis Ford Copella and big name actors like Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, and Kristen Stewart.
The book itself is easy to imagine as a film, and has been since the book the published. The written scenes unwind as the adventure does, visually mapping the country in poetic descriptions with character’s so bizarre and dynamic that they must have been written with real people in mind, which they were, with protagonist Sal Paradise as a version of the author himself, the visionary fire cracker character Dean Moriarty based on real-life leader of the cross country mission Neal Cassady, and other essential characters they meet along the way like Old Bull Lee and Carl Marx based on beat icons William S Boroughs and Allan Ginsberg.
The novel was written on a roll of paper as Kerouac traveled the country with his beat writer friends, the visual reality of the experience writing the novel, the novel than instantly imagined as a visual experience. After On The Road was published, Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brandon asking him to play Dean in a film adaptation while he played Sal (i.e. himself.) Brando never responded and the movie never got made, but in 1979 Francis Ford Copella bought the rights and tried for the next 30 years to find the right writer, the right actors, the right director to translate the iconic novel to screen. At one point he had Ethan Hawke as Sal and Brad Pitt as Dean, later it was Billy Crudup as Sal and Colin Farrell as Dean. But now, finally, the film has come together with Sam Riley playing Sal and Garrett Hedlund as Dean and a budget of $25 million to try to capture the era of wild roaming.
No one is expecting this movie to be better than the book (why even try to compare such different planes of thought, Kerouac wouldn’t), but the feeling of the novel is distinct enough to want to experience it visually. The cinematography is promising, the soundtrack seems worthy, and the actors look somewhat inspired, not just mirrored versions of the characters in the book. All together it could fulfill a genuine adaptation, not copy, of the characters and story: to try to reproduce characters and events based on real people and events half a century later would be a messy implosion.
It is rare that one novel can simultaneously define an era and maintain a level of modern poignancy, but On The Road continues to be a story of youth and adventure unlike any other, maybe because of it’s roots in reality, maybe because we all wish it could be our reality, at least for a couple weeks. Hopefully the movie takes a look at the bones of what Kerouac wrote to find the deep desires that have made this novel still relatable even though technology and social normalities have surpassed it, to connect with that need to escape comfort, chase an adventure, and find something you didn’t know you were missing. Or, in the words of Kerouac as Sal Paradise: to “burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
On The Road will be out in theaters December 21 but if you happen to be in Brooklyn this Saturday, get tickets to a special screening at 9:30pm with an appearance by screenwriter Jose Rivera at BAM Rose Cinemas.