On the Road is one of my favorite books, and I was eager to see the much-awaited film version. The adaptation has vexed filmmakers for decades, with Francis Coppola attempting it for years. He finally gave the reins to Walter Salles, who has directed Jose Rivera’s script.
The difficulties in adapting this film are many. For one thing, the book was more about language than story. Jack Kerouac wrote the book in a three-week burst of creativity, without using paragraph breaks or even changing paper, as he inserted a scroll of paper into his typewriter. The book consists of four connected sections, each depicting a different trip that Kerouac’s avatar, Sal Paradise, takes. He visits Denver, San Francisco, New Orleans, and Mexico, and the only thing tying them together is the sense of reawakening that the American Bohemia undertook in the post-war era, which would turn into the Beat Generation.
Therefore, I was stunned that this film is as good as it is. Salles, who made the South American version of On the Road with Motorcycle Diaries, has done an astounding job of capturing the spirit of restlessness that led to the Beats, while Rivera’s script uses just enough of the original Kerouac to give us a sense of the book, but also manages to give a story arc to the narrative.
Sam Riley stars as Paradise, who is an ex-G.I. living in Queens with his mother. He meets Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund) through Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). Moriarty was based on Neal Cassady, while Marx was the stand-in for Allen Ginsburg. Moriarty is visiting from Denver, along with his teenage bride Marylou (Kristen Stewart).
After Moriarty heads home, Paradise will cross the country to meet up with him in Denver. The film is very faithful to the book, but I missed the omission of Sal giving up on hitchhiking after one rainy night, and taking the bus to Chicago. Paradise is caught under Moriarty’s charisma, which attracts men and woman. Carlo is in love with him, and the film is much franker about sex than the book is. Moriarty bounces from woman to woman, divorcing Marylou and marrying a woman in San Francisco, Camille, (Kirsten Dunst) who bears him a child. Moriarty is pretty much pansexual, which is only hinted at in the book.
Sal ends up traveling to Southern California and falls in love with a Mexican migrant worker, then heads back home. He and Dean will visit their friend Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, doing a dead-on William S. Burroughs impersonation), and after Camille throws Dean out, they go to Mexico and smoke weed and hang out in a whorehouse.
There are also visits to jazz clubs, getting pulled over by cops, smoking lots of pot, and doing a lot of Benzedrine. While the 1950s is legendary for being the era of the man in the gray flannel suit, there was a lot of fucking and drug-taking going on.
Before seeing the film, I only knew that Stewart was in it. The parts of the women have been amplified in the film, but I was glad to see that the script does not try to gloss over the essential misogyny of these guys. They worship women but are shit to them. Dean actually had three wives in the book, but he’s more than horrible enough to the two in this film. Also showing up in the cast is Amy Adams as Old Bull Lee’s wife (when he is shown shooting at tin cans, those who know his wife’s fate may have a little shudder go through them). Terrence Howard is uncredited as a jazz musician, and just when you think you’ve seen all the stars Steve Buscemi shows up, wearing a John Waters mustache, playing a guy who shares a ride with Sal and Dean and ends up paying Dean to sodomize him.
As is usual in stories like this, the narrator is the least interesting character, as he is the one who is reflecting everyone else. Like Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, Sal Paradise is the conduit by which we learn about the brilliant madness of Dean Moriarty. Riley, with a raspy voice and DiCaprio eyes, is solid as Sal, but Edlund really shines as Dean, which is a role that makes or breaks the picture. If the actor playing this role isn’t seductive, both as a friend and as a lover, it won’t work. Well, Edlund convinced me. I would have hitchhiked across the country for his Dean.
My grade for On the Road: B+