It’s been a long journey from the original publication of Jack Kerouac’s beat novel On the Road in 1957 to this Walter Salles-directed big screen adaptation. Over half a century has passed, and in the meantime the cultural influence of the ‘Beat Generation’ has inspired music and film on many different levels. Salles’ On the Road attempts to condense and capture one of the great unfilmable books, but instead motors onto the Cannes Croisette with its trunk packed full with baggage.
On the Road recounts the friendship and travels of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), one of a series of pseudonyms Kerouac lumbered his real life characters with, and his companion Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). They meet soon after Sal’s father dies, and it is Dean’s free-spirited lifestyle that puts Sal onto the road as a way of life. Sal and his buddies are free-wheeling hedonists, high on life, marijuana, booze, Benzedrine, jazz and sex. And yet despite their intellectual commitment to freedom, none of the characters are a hundred percent certain of what they are doing. Jealousies and hang-ups, guilty and regret impinge and threaten to bring the madcap joyride to a halt.
Many of these jealousies centre on the sexual antics of Dean, introduced to us completely naked as he answers the door to Sal and Carlo Marx (a pseudonym that angered Allen Ginsberg, here played by Tom Sturridge). Kristen Stewart plays Marylou, Dean’s sweetheart, but there is also the more mature Camille (Kirsten Dunst) to contend with, who waits for him on the opposite coast. Sal and Dean’s journeys take them on a meandering exploration of American geography, returning occasionally to New York only to set off once more to visit Bull Lee (Viggo Mortenson), San Francisco and finally Mexico.
Although not the car crash that some may have expected, Salles’ On the Road is far too respectful to its source material. The chunks of text that are recounted in voiceover form, the sight of Sal constantly scribbling down notes and the final, almost holy reproduction of the book’s actual typing onto scroll all make this most cinematic of books seem as dusty as a Henry James adaptation. It feels harsh to criticise a film which has obviously been lovingly and devotedly produced. Indeed, the landscapes are beautiful, the period detail meticulous, and both Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera inject a humour throughout.
Stewart seems to relish throwing off the ‘Will she or won’t she’ puritanism of the Twilight franchise with an unambiguous ‘Yes, she will’. Yet everyone here seems too movie-star-beautiful, the one moment we’re supposed to feel discomfort being when Steve Buscemi enters the fray. This scene speaks also to the book’s homophobia, which the film frantically attempts to offset. Salles is guilty of other cliches as well: funerals take place in the rain, the straight world is full of actors who come with the term ‘pinched expressions’ on their CV, and the Beat ideal of fun has always been difficult to seriously convey – the jazz is fine, but some of the bacchanalia looks more like a long beer commercial than a genuine expression of freedom.
On the Road has already been made a thousand times before: in Easy Rider (1969), One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975), every Tom Waits album and even Salles’ very own The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). Salles interpretation is good looking but stilted, full of movement but oddly paralysed, an all-too respectable portrait of what should be wild rebellion.