Jack Kerouac’s semi autobiographical novel On the Road captured the spirit of a generation, so telling it in film was never going to be an easy task, yet Walter Salles (perhaps foolishly) has stepped up to the challenge in his adaptation starring Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart. Post-war depression drips in the air, jazz blares out of the wireless and young, ambitious writer Sal Paradise (Riley, weakly disguised Kerouac) is desperate to live and write about all that is life.
Through a chance encounter, Sal meets Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a cocksure rumble-tumble type of guy who has spent almost every day of his young life road tripping across America, eager for all the kick and kickbacks that life has to offer. Convinced that life must be experienced on the road, Sal sets out searching for ‘it’ and along the way encounters a tangle of drug-addled, sexually liberated characters that define the spirit of all that is beat.
Kerouac’s novel is recognised by the literary world as a period defining work, its episodic structure and erratic prose seem almost impossible to capture in any other medium, especially cinema. Down the years there have been numerous false starts to bringing this now canonised classic to the silver screen, starting in 1957 when Kerouac penned a letter to Marlon Brando asking him to play Dean. Salles attempts to distil the essence of the story and provide a sense of period that is essential to the spirit of the text. Whilst some of his efforts prove effective, the overall result is as baggy as a pair of 1950s slacks, further hindered by Riley’s patchy performance that fails to capture the obsessive bromance between himself and the near mythical Moriarty.
That said, there are moments when this adaptation shines. The encounters with Old Bill (Viggo Mortensen) provide some of the most enjoyable moments where a faint echo of Kerouac’s typewriter can be heard invoking the spirit of a generation in search of life that both embraced and defied the American dream. Nonetheless, the film feels tame, in part because the subject matter is no longer as shocking as it was in the 50s, and stripped of its literary eloquence the tale has little left to offer today’s generation.
Instead. we are provided with an irritatingly ironic hipster adaptation that has about as much bite as a Shoreditch one-liner. Trapped in the mythos of Kerouac’s work, but structurally weak and devoid of the punch of the hip cat chat, with On the Road, Salles has more than certainly missed the beat.