director Walter Salles
On the Road has long been one of those novels that had escaped cinematic interpretation. Brazilian director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries (2004)) gives a good go of it here, re-creating the America of the late 1940’s and the coming of the Beat Generation. A good go of it does not necessarily mean an utterly successful film, but a reasonably meritorious effort.
Here we have levels of interpretation going on, which is inevitable. Jack Kerouac’s novel thinly hides real people behind pseudonyms, so you have things like Sal Paradise is really Jack Kerouac, Dean Moriarty is really Neal Cassady, Old Bull Lee is really William S. Burroughs, etc. etc. So then you have this Garrett Heldlund is Moriarty/Cassady, Sam Riley is Paradise/Kerouac, Kristen Stewart is Marylou/Luanne Henderson, etc. etc. You have actors playing characters that are also sort of real people. Maybe it’s better if you don’t think about it.
I thought that the cast was good overall, and Garrett Hedlund as Dean/Neal has the kind of vibrant wanton appeal that one would imagine necessary in such a figure as that, the man who attracted so many of the Beats around him and drove their energies. I was least impressed with Sam Riley as Kerouac but that may have had to do with the semi-cypher-like nature of the character portrayal. Kristen Stewart, who is always more likable outside of a Twilight movie, is also likable here, still playing a young teen.
Years back when I read On the Road, the only time I’ve read it, I had just finished reading John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, and I found a fascinating contrast in those two books that were essentially “road stories”, tales set on the American road, ultimately journeys that found themselves in California and even at points in the San Joaquin Valley. But the contrast was the periods, the Great Depression and the immediate post-WWII America, still only perhaps a decade apart in their temporal settings. The contrast is the what the road and America means to the impoverished Okies of Steinbeck’s novel and the footloose and fancy-free rambling whimsy of Kerouac’s. On the Road could not have happened in the 1930’s. World War II changed everything. And the post-War alienation of the Beats and Kerouac’s story is the a very different reaction perhaps than Noir, but is part of the collision of what America came to define itself as in the 1950’s and the souls of those who didn’t fit that concept.
The movie makes the story more cohesive, I suppose. I don’t recall a story arc in the novel quite as clear as in the film. While Salles sought inspiration from the Beats and perhaps the French New Wave, it’s not at all a radical document itself. It derives some flavor from some nice jazz and blues that pepper the soundtrack. But it doesn’t let itself go to the same occasionally incoherent jive that is the voice and heart of Kerouac. Maybe it would have been foolish to try that.
I didn’t love the film, but I did like it. It’s one of several films about the Beat Generation that have come or are coming in the last couple of years. What does it find in context of today? I don’t know. Perhaps in attempt to understand and contextualize a moment and people from the past, it offers some insight or contrast to the world of today? I don’t know.