‘On the Road’ on the Screen

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby” has been the subject of six movies, the first being a silent movie in 1926, a year after the novel appeared. The newest version, with Leonardo DeCaprio, will be released next month. “Gatsby” is often ranked as the best American novel. “On the Road” by Jack Kerouac also makes the list of best novels. The first film based on Kerouac’s now-classic story debuted at the Cannes Film Festival last spring. I’ve been reading about the movie for a year: media reviews, Facebook posts, e-mailed assessments from friends, news features, actor interviews. Until last night, I’d seen only a few excerpts from the film, which has been a commercial let-down. After mixed reviews last year, the film was edited again for festival showings later in 2012 and then released to scattered cinemas this March. In Massachusetts, the film showed up in the Boston area and in Amherst—it didn’t make it to the cinema in Lowell. I watched it on cable TV last night.

I was not in a rush to see it when it became available for home viewing. I had read and heard so much about the movie, that I had almost had enough of it. Still, I was curious, and knew I had to see it—for a lot of reasons. “On the Road” is not my favorite Kerouac book. I made three attempts to read it when I was younger before I got through the whole story. Even now, I prefer reading it in sections. I understand why it took 55 years to make the first movie based on the book. It’s an extraordinary work of literature. As a composition, it’s a masterpiece of language. Translating the spirit of the book on film is probably impossible. Like “Gatsby,” several more attempts may be required to get it right. Reduced, it’s a story of two guys on the highway in pursuit of raw happiness not long after World War II.

Director Walter Salles’s “On the Road” surprised me for being so muted. There are revved up scenes in which he tries to convey the propulsive quality of the writing and story, some of which are successful but others of which stuck me as cartoonish. In fact, I wondered while watching the film if animation might be the way to go with this story. Film may be too real-looking for a story that is so reality-based. I thought: Am I watching a semi-documentary of a time in Kerouac’s life, a visualization of the novel, or a filmmaker’s translation of the story? I may not be a good viewer for this film, knowing too well the novel and story-behind-the-story. I couldn’t separate what was so familiar from what the movie-maker was creatively expressing.

There was something sad and grim in the tone. The Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady character is portrayed as the prime vehicle in a demolition derby, a force to which the Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac character is drawn to as much for his different-ness as for his magnetic masculinity (“hero of the sunburnt west”). There were fits of ecstasy on the road, but I didn’t pick up a lot of joy in this film—which is a word Kerouac favors. Drawing on the original scroll typescript for the story, Salles connects Sal’s father’s death to the search for Dean’s father, who is thought to be in Denver but more likely in parts unknown. This theme could have been a stronger connecting thread in the film. The underlying spirituality in Kerouac’s work does not really register here either. 

Like “Gatsby,” this movie might have been better made the first time in 1958, a year after being published, because the cultural norms have changed so much, especially in the place of women in today’s society. I may simply be too old to have seen this movie for the first time, but the way the women characters are presented seemed to me to be shallow and dismissive, for which the author carries responsibility. But this is a movie, and some of the women on whom characters are based have since published books and letters and have been interviewed by biographers—all material that was available to the screenwriter. The movie is not an exact copy of the book by any stretch, so why not fill in a few outlines? And there are a lot of silences—adding to the muted tone of the film. Even the almost whispered song by Kerouac himself that is heard as the production credits roll contributes to the downcast mood of the movie. It’s an unexpected closing and a poignant recording by the author, but melancholy—coming after the wistful, philosophical final passage of the novel (“… nobody knows what’s going to happen to anybody besides the forlorn rags of growing old …”).

The road and landscape themselves are stars of this film. The imagery is often beautiful. Visually, the work is artful and subtle. The scenes of characters in the cars and what they see through the windshield, a kind of movie screen in motion, convey the attraction of the ride. The sheer act of going, of moving, of looking, offers its own kicks and joy. The jazz clubs, dance parties, various bars, and eateries, as well as the vintage cars, take the viewer back in time. But it’s a disjoint story as told in the film. Scenes change with time cues that read “Five months later” or “Eight months later.” Sal Paradise turns up in a migrant workers camp in California without a lot of set up. Later, he is heaving bags into a freight car while working for the railroad. And then he’s on the move again. At the end in New York City, Dean’s a wreck but Sal is decked out like a socialite when they last meet—again without much context offered to a viewer who has not read the book.

The cast of actors is outstanding in reputation, but their talents go mostly untapped in this film. Amy Adams wanders around for a few minutes. Viggo Mortensen stands out as the William Burroughs character, but is there and gone too fast. Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley as Dean and Sal dominate the screen time, but are not impact players here. Overall, the characters on film are not likable. The entire effort has a thin quality, which I did not expect for such an exuberant story.


One Response to ‘On the Road’ on the Screen

  1. Kosta says:

    When I was 14 I read about half of On the Road – lent the book to someone else and they never returned it. So, I’ve had this “hole” for many years and always have wanted to finish that book and make life complete. :) Yeah, Paul’s review makes me realize that I let the opportunity go – I’m now too old – older even than Paul.