Walter Salles’ On the Road

When I learned that Jack Kerouac’s On the Road had finally been adopted into a movie, I felt excited to see it. I had read the novel when I was young man, and I loved the sense of freedom depicted in its pages. A few years later, I tried to write my own movie adaptation, but I abandoned that project after a few weeks. I abandoned it for several reasons, but the chief reason was that I didn’t know enough about screenwriting to make it work. Despite my failure, I remained convince that this novel would make an interesting movie. For two decades, it surprised me that Hollywood ignored this work. Ignored no more—they finally made the movie!

I watched for its release date with anticipation. Once it was released, I watched for it to hit my local theater. It never came to Olympia. Finally, three months after its release, I saw that it was playing in Tacoma. Suspecting this would be the closest it would come to me, at least for the foreseeable future, I purchased a ticket on Amtrak and rode the train to Tacoma. Perhaps there is some poetic value in needing to hit the road in order to watch On the Road.

After debarking in Tacoma, though there were bus routes that would’ve taken me to the theater, I decided to walk the two miles there. The weather was sunny and warm, and—I reasoned—Kerouac would’ve walked. The Grand Cinema is located in a quaint neighborhood dominated by coffee houses, pub-styled bars, and student apartments. It seemed the perfect place for an artsy film house. I claimed my ticket, bought the obligatory bucket of popcorn, and headed into the theater. Would the movie be worth the trip?

Published in 1957, Kerouac’s On the Road is considered by many critics as the quintessential novel of the Beat Generation. Without a doubt, it is one of the most important works from that movement. It tells the story of the friendship between Sal Paradise and his wayward friend, Dean Moriarty (Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassady in life). Since Sal lived in Queens and Dean lived in San Francisco, it was a friendship that required frequent trips across the country. These trips provide the pulse to the novel, as Kerouac describes their travels, the people they meet, the places they visit, and the parties they attend. Though the novel describes an hedonistic, even a nihilistic lifestyle, it also describes the desperation that drove them.

The movie, directed by Walter Salles, also portrayed that desperation. Since this was my introduction to that director and to the two leading stars (Sam Riley as Sal, Garrett Hedlund as Dean), the movie had a freshness that I liked. It wasn’t the same-old faces up on the screen, the faces I’ve seen in a dozen other movies. That allowed me to imagine Riley and Hedlund as Sal and Dean, as if I were a voyeur witnessing their lives rather than a moviegoer watcher a movie. Viggo Mortensen’s portrayal of Old Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs) was so perfect I found myself wishing he had a bigger role. His was the best performance of the movie.

In terms of characters and plot, the movie was faithful to the novel. It began, as the novel did, with Sal meeting Dean, and it ended, like the novel, with their last meeting, a few years later. As in the novel, Dean felt torn between the two women he would marry, Marilou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst). And as they had in the novel, Sal and Dean took the same trips and met the same people. They experienced the same events.

Despite these similarities, there was a noticeable and disconcerting difference in tone between the novel and the movie. The travel scenes, which dominated the novel, were abridged for the movie, and the sex scenes, subtle in the novel, became exaggerated for the movie. For the movie, the story became less about Sal and Dean’s friendship and more about Dean’s sordid love life. Perhaps a better title for the movie would be On the Bed or In the Backseat. Unable to adopt a coherent plot form the novel, Salles focused more on episodes, on filming images from the novel pages, on recreating moments in time. This created wonderful moments in film, fun scenes to watch—noteworthy a dance scene between Dean and Marilou—but it weakened the structure and created subplots without direction.

What did come through in the movie was the sense of desperation that motivated these characters and caused them to drop out of mainstream society and to adopt alternative lifestyles. The Beat Generation considered themselves “beaten.” They refused to adopt the values and responsibilities of mainstream society, because it was those values and responsibilities that had beaten them. To the Beats, no one was more beaten than Neal Cassady, so both in Kerouac’s novel and in the movie, Dean Moriarty is the lost cause. No one knows that better than Dean himself, so he pushed himself harder and faster in order to steal as much from life as he could. Perhaps this desperation came through better in the movie than it did in the novel, because the movie had the benefit of hindsight. We now know that the Beat Generation died young.

Was my trip to Tacoma worth it? I have to answer yes. I saw a move that was well-written, well-directed, and well-acted. Though it wasn’t a perfect movie, it was a fun movie to watch. I am glad I saw it, and I would recommend it to others. This review is a mixed review, because I disliked some aspects of the movie. Perhaps the best summary I could give was the first thought I had after seeing it. As I was leaving The Grand Cinema, I found myself thinking: The novel was a product of the 1950s; the movie, of the 2010s.

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