by Padraic Coffey
The one unavoidable question facing Walter Salles’ adaptation of On the Road is, why now? Why more than thirty years since the rights to Jack Kerouac’s revered 1950s beatnik text were acquired by Francis Ford Coppola for his production company, American Zoetrope? Why more than fifty years since the book was originally published, on the cusp of the counterculture movement that would dominate the 1960s? Perhaps it has something to do with the reappearance of the word ‘hipster’ in common lexicon, despite the often derogatory associations with that term.
Beginning at a breakneck pace with Godard-esque jump cuts and a percussion-heavy score from Gustavo Santaolalla, On the Road details the journey taken by New Yorker Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) across the United States, mostly in pursuit of the charismatic, sexually-voracious Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). The two take in a number of key cities, experimenting both sexually and medicinally while aspiring writer Sal furiously scribbles notes that he hopes will form the backbone of a long-gestating novel.
Though lasting little over two hours – and trimmed down from the version that debuted at the Cannes Film Festival – On the Road has the feel of a much longer film. Salles and screenwriter José Rivera’s faithfulness to their source material result in the narrative being reduced to a series of vignettes that, while holding the viewer’s attention, offer little that is dramatically gripping. As many of the more successful cinematic adaptations have shown, ruthlessness is sometimes essential in gutting a tale of any extraneous material. Books are experienced over days, weeks, even months; films are experienced in two hour stints in a movie theatre. Attempting to replicate a book verbatim is a recipe for disastrous filmmaking.
Salles and Rivera seem an appropriate pair to tackle Kerouac’s book, having brought Che Geuvara’s literary cult classic The Motorcycle Diaries to the big screen in 2004. Sean Penn’s Into the Wild is also evoked, itself an adaptation of Jon Krakaeur’s non-fiction travelogue of the United States. Given the ample marijuana and Benzedrine ingested by the characters throughout, On the Road can also take its place in the pantheon of drug movies. Sal and Dean’s hallucinatory trip through Mexico mirrors the Mardis Gras climax of Easy Rider, and a cold-turkey passage owes more than a little to Trainspotting.
The film’s period detail is captured with admirable meticulousness, recalling Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s Howl from 2010, which featured James Franco in the role of Allen Ginsberg. Here Ginsberg’s alter ego Carlo Marx (Kerouac was forced to use pseudonyms for his book’s publication) is played with equal gusto by Tom Sturridge. In the central role of Sal Paradise, Sam Riley’s husky New York drawl is impressive for an actor more associated with playing Britons, and Garret Hedlund, undoubtedly a heartthrob-in-waiting, will either captivate or infuriate as the self-destructively irresponsible Dean.
Salles achieves moments of true sensuality during the film’s many sex scenes, and handles well his talented ensemble cast, including the unexpectedly good Kristen Stewart, but as the credits roll, the necessity of a cinematic version of On the Road is still questionable. However his prose may have dated, Kerouac’s book was written with first-hand authenticity. Since half a century has elapsed since the publication of On the Road, this version cannot help but fall short of that realism. Ambitious though it might be, Salles’ On the Road is little more than an abridged audio-visual accompaniment to Kerouac’s original novel.