Based on the Jack Kerouac novel of the same name, On The Road tells the account of Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego played by Sam Riley) and his various travels across America, and most importantly his relationship with Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassidy, played Garrett Hedlund). Directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), it is beautifully cinematographic but an ultimately flawed adaptation of the source material.
On The Road is one of those movies that has already become so ingrained in film lore if just from it’s saga to be made alone. In 1957, Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to play Dean Moriarty, who in turn never responded. Warner Bros. turned down an offer to make it, and after Francis Ford Coppola attained the rights in 1979, he tried five times to produce the film only to fail each time. Allen Ginsberg (whose character counterpart is Carl Marx) was even brought in to help with casting in 1995.
Shadowed by this history, it’s a wonder that the film has finally hit our screens. While director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera must be congratulated for having the bravery to translate Kerouac’s seminal, ramblingly difficult material into film, it has come at a price.
Within the opening scenes, it becomes apparent that the atmosphere of the book has disapparated and Salles has lost much of the passion that was so apparent in The Motorcycle Diaries. The fascination of the novel lies within its incredible relevance to the time; a piece of social history, and much of Sal’s first person narration musings on music, drugs, the Beat Generation and his travels are lost. The film doesn’t capture the ingrained wanderlust and crazed youth that the characters carry in Kerouac’s words.
It is the self-awareness that truly cripples On The Road; it becomes too knowing and pre-meditated, losing all the spontaneity that has inspired so many in the book. Much of the script misses the point, particularly with Moriarty’s characterisation- who’s bouncing, erratic persona is much too sedate here. A fabulous scene where Hedlund exudes Moriarty’s madness with wild eyes and jumbled hand gestures is then let down as he slumps into an arm chair for a moment of self-reflection. He loses the magneticity in these moments, which in the book are what forces Sal to come back to Dean again and again; as soon as you start questioning why on earth Sal is so hung up on Dean, why on earth should we care what happens to them during their somewhat smug journeys of “self-discovery”? The final scene, although well acted, felt like it should have made more of an emotional hit on me than it did.
One of One The Road‘s greatest merits is its stellar supporting cast: Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams are brilliantly eccentric in their cameo roles, and although Kristen Stewart is certainly not the “luscious blonde” described in the book (and there’s no era in time she could pass as sixteen years old) she gives a good performance as the tolerant, put upon baby-bride Marylou. This is true in fact of all the actresses who give brief but fierce appearances (Kirsten Dunst and Elisabeth Moss notably); the two women so gravely oppressed and abandoned by their man-boys as they depart on another liberating voyage, and it is a shame that in its 137 minute running time On The Road does not rest upon these plot points more.
There are many truly breathtakingly impressive shots too which pinpoint the vastness of the American odyssey, cinematographer Eric Gautier bathing the landscapes in dusky oranges, capturing the void of America that one can easily disappear into. These are the moments you feel the pull towards the life the characters live – that desire to be free. Unfortunately, sat in the cinema, being On The Road felt like a rather long road indeed.