I read Jack Kerouac’s On The Road around five years ago, mostly whilst sat on a kick stool manning the counter at a dead-end job in an off-licence, pouring through the pages of novels in the long gaps between customers. Reading it, those dreary walls were peeled away, and limitless horizons replaced them. Never one to be caught by the travel bug, here was a novel that made me want to take off, and over the course of its 300 rambling pages I saw myself hopping freight cars across the plains of middle America, or hitchhiking my way across the deserts of the Midwest. It’s a heady, spellbinding read, and one that is also inherently cinematic.
As a movie lover then and now, I pictured how I might adapt the book for the silver screen, if the decisions were left to me. In my fantasy I saw a glorious, romantic black and white picture. Stark images of shining purity, white gloss and black shadows you could get lost in and the smoke from marijuana rollups snake-charming their way out of frame.
Walter Salles’ movie is not that movie from my fantasies, but that shouldn’t be held against what is largely an earnest and obviously respectful attempt to conjure Kerouac’s magic for cinema audiences.
In terms of the look, Salles couldn’t be further from my idealised version. On The Road is an unfussy, grainy affair, mostly (if not all) hand-held and rough, it’s days garish with colour, it’s nights murky with gloom. This is, thankfully, no bad thing at all. It lends the movie the authentic feel of a travelogue.
When it came to casting, I must admit my initial reaction to Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty was nothing short of horror. This was the man whose profound lack of screen charisma had made Tron Legacy one of the longest endurance tests I’ve ever suffered in a multiplex. My expectations for this adaptation were immediately halved. So it’s refreshing to report that Hedlund is marvellous, capturing Moriarty’s id-like zest for experience and gratification, as well as nailing those more rueful moments when the character briefly reflects on a life of transience.
Elsewhere, Sam Riley puts in decent if unremarkable work as narrator Sal Paradise, whilst Kristen Stewart is (unsurprisingly) openly replaceable as Mary Lou, in a role that feels slightly embellished from the one in the book. This embellishment is understandable however. On The Road is not a story that serves its female characters well. They are very much secondary. As such Stewart should feel lucky for what she has managed to gleam from the role. I’m sure Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Amy Adams feel far less well served. In fact, with obviously-superior players in smaller roles, it’s hard to fathom the thinking behind Stewart’s casting, but there we go.
Also of note are two significant guest spots. Viggo Mortensen lifts the picture up in the middle with his appearance as Burroughs alter-ego Old Bull Lee, whilst a late-entry from Steve Buscemi sees the man clearly relishing the chance to play a more colourful character than he has of late in Boardwalk Empire.
But what of the movie overall? Kerouac’s novel has stumped screenwriters in the past, as much of beat writing tends to. With its fluid, stream-of-consciousness meanderings, how could it comfortably get reigned in to the needs of narrative cinema? The answer is that it can’t, at least not entirely. As such On The Road is difficult to get in to initially. Where the book breezes through states and cities with cadence, the same cannot be said for Salles’ film from the get-go. So many fast edits make Sal’s experience feel more like a collage than a journey. Pieces tacked together arbitrarily. It takes time for this approach to feel rewarding, and it wasn’t until around Mortensen’s appearance halfway through that I really felt like I’d become comfortable with the pacing.
Likewise, where Kerouac was able to use his poetic licence to keep the reader turning pages, Salles struggles to maintain such a grip in the film’s closing act. We feel like we’ve taken one road trip too many, and by the time we reach an excursion to Mexico it definitely feels like enough is enough. On The Road simply runs out of steam.
But then, this is partly fitting. Sal matures; his love affair with the irrepressible Dean Moriarty runs thin. He moves on, but not without nostalgia for those days on the road. It’s a fitting end, but not a particularly dramatic one, and whilst I’m thankful that no last-minute acts of melodramatic licence were thrown in, it does mean that the movie simply fades away, like the memories of a holiday or the exact features of old classmates.
On The Road is no failure, and if judged on its own merits is an above average road-movie with a strangely skewed heart. At the same time however it often feels like cliff notes, and as the creative team struggle to wrangle the source material into a cohesive picture, the result is overlong and a little too messy. Worth a look, but not one to take to heart.
I still have my own version playing in my head.