On the Road Dir. Walter Salles

[American Zoetrope; 2012]

Styles: road movie, novel adaptation
Others: Rebel Without a Cause, Motorcycle Diaries, Howl

“because there was nowhere to go, but everywhere”
— Jack Kerouac

I must have been around 15 years old when I first read On the Road. I stopped half way through it. I couldn’t help but feel I was wasting my time and my life away by lying in bed reading about how different everything could be. I called a few friends and went for a week-long trip down to the seaside. To say it had a powerful impact on me at the time is a true understatement.

While Kerouac’s novel has certainly felt the passage of time (many moments now feel naive, tame, or, even worse, homophobic and sexist), I still feel intoxicated by its thirst for life and even more so by the writing itself — something I could not fully experience the first time around. Kerouac’s lines and sentences jump all over the place, expressing the intensity of his mind and his desire for something — anything at all — that could be different. I lost count how many times Kerouac described something as the “saddest thing ever” or the “prettiest thing ever.” It’s happening all at once, all the time, and it contaminates the reader. It’s very difficult to walk away from the novel with a feeling of indifference.

On the Road is not the tale of Kerouac’s (or his alter-ego, Sal’s) travels and experiences across America. It is the tale of Dean Moriarty, the “holy con-man”, the “fallen saint” and several other hyperbolic larger than life adjectives Kerouac can find to describe him during the 300 or so pages that make up the novel. This almost mythical Dean (and can there be any other?) is rendered by Kerouac as an intoxicating presence, one whose fervent charisma would grasp you by the throat and not let you go until your love for him has drained you of all your life force. However, as we ride along, it gradually becomes clear that Dean was also very self-absorbed, and his egocentric maniac personality drove many people away and hurt many others (especially the women around him). This all fits, however, with the individualistic undertones in the novel, which makes for a very historically-specific (the 1950’s) and geographically-situated (USA) vindication of individualism, of trying to find oneself through a feverous journey of self-discovery while attempting to fully experience everything. This was before the communes of the 1960’s. There is no “we”. It’s “I” against the world, and in such a struggle there is an inescapable underlying fatalism: we know that “I” is doomed to perish and that this journey will take a toll, especially on those closest to us.

Director Walter Salles’ filmic adaption of On the Road suffers from two closely-related major issues. First, the director fails to translate the vivacity and experimentalism that is a staple of the novel. The book’s literary experimentation is not a mere exercise in style, but a constant dialogue with the lifestyle experimentation that Kerouac wants to communicate to the reader. Salles’ adaptation, on the other hand, often feels as if we’re being formally recounted the events that make up the book. There’s no passion: I often asked myself what possible reason Salles could have for liking the book in the first place.

Not only does the film lack soul; it also brings a strangely out-of-place tone of judgment to the whole ordeal. Allow me to exemplify. Dean (played by Garrett Hedlund) is driving Sal (Sam Riley) and his aunt back to her New York home when they are stopped by the police. Since he’s completely broke, Sal’s aunt must pay for the speeding ticket. Dean says he’ll pay her back and, while in the original novel the very next line goes to recount that he did (even if it was a year or so later), in the film he never does (“You still owe my aunt those fifteen bucks,” says Sal later on). The same goes for the film’s depiction of Old Bull Lee (the name chosen by Kerouac for William Burroughs and played by Viggo Mortensen in the film), portrayed as a crazy junkie who can’t properly care for his children (they sleep on his lap while he can’t even be bothered to remove the heroin needle from his arm). While a crazy junkie he may have been and kids he did have, the novel critically dedicates several pages to explaining why Old Bull Lee is a mentor to these young men and why they went though all the trouble of travelling to meet the legendary being. The same moralizing tone is present again in the film when Dean leaves Sal alone and sick in Mexico and steals his money. While the book, too, marks that moment as a turning point in the relationship between the two men, Dean does not leave Sal alone (their mutual friend Stan stays with him) and he never steals any money from him.

Why would Salles change these minor yet significant moments in character construction if not to create a moralist work? This filmic adaptation is constructed to slowly make us realize that Dean is, supposedly, simply an egotistical, no good junkie maniac who uses people for his own hedonistic whims. Of course, such a Dean also exists in the novel, but there, his character is also much more than that. That being said, there is one point in which Salles’ moralizing rereading works well: the treatment of the women. Both in the novel and the film, women are relegated to second place, never fully part of the wild boys club of machines, the road, and their books. Kerouac never seems to notice, but it’s impossible to read the book today and not squirm at this dynamic. While Salles still leaves the women mostly out of the equation, he does turn their treatment into a narrative theme by means of some carefully crafted shots and some added dialogue and situations for both Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst). It’s a welcome addition, and the one point where his film both adds to and criticizes the novel in an honest and organic manner.

Eric Gautier’s cinematography in the film has been praised by several critics, but while it’s certainly competent and slick, with beautiful panoramic shots of the American landscape, it ultimately has the problem that plagues the whole film. It is out of place, it’s too well behaved, too tidy, and almost too good; its cold detachment gives the impression of watching these characters through an Instagram filter. I kept asking myself what someone like Dennis Hooper could have done with this source material during his Out of the Blue period. Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Dean is the true high point. It’s a tremendously difficult task to bring to life such a mythical figure, and he should be praised for is efforts: the way he screams his “yes, yes, yuuss” on screen is convincing enough. Afterwards, I couldn’t help but hear Hedlund’s voice when rereading the book. Ultimately though, Hedlund is acting out Salles’ Dean, not Kerouac’s, and that Dean just isn’t as interesting.

Is the task of deconstructing the myth behind Kerouac and Neal Cassady (the two real life counterparts for Sal and Dean) a valid and rewarding one? Yes, most certainly. I would never argue that a cinematic adaptation must follow a novel by the letter, but it should at least adapt a theme or a major idea behind its source, even if to completely subvert it. There should be a dialogue between the two forms. Ultimately, Salles transforms a rebellious tale of going into the void of uncertainty into a judgmental account of the dangers of living a frenzied, chaotic life only to end up as a bum on the street. No one wants to sit through a two hour long sermon, even if it’s a beautifully photographed one.

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