It’s taken a long, long time to get On The Road onto the screen. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1979 (and that’s ignoring even earlier attempts, some involving Jack Kerouac himself) and has been trying to make it ever since. He’s still involved as a producer, but it’s Walter Salles in the director’s chair, who’s previously brought us the likes of The Motorcycle Diaries and Central Station.
One of the things that stymied Coppola over the years was how exactly you go about taking a novel like On The Road and turn it into a movie. Kerouac’s book is more about the way it’s told and its thematic drive than the story itself – indeed the tale often feels pretty random, with the characters criss-crossing the country with no real purpose other than to live. It works perfectly on the page, but translating it from the propulsive written word to the screen was always going to be tough.
It’s a challenge Salles’ film is very aware of and never quite overcomes, although it certainly gives its all trying. There’s a sense of this being a homage to the book as much as an adaptation – in awe of and slightly afraid of messing up Kerouac’s famed prose. As a result it goes for a highly romantic, visually lovely appreciation of the book. That’s fine and it’s certainly quite involving, but it never quite feels like it’s truly a film in its own right. Indeed pretty much everything is done in reference to the book, to the point we even see Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s stand-in in On The Road) writing it.
The film follows young writer Paradise (Sam Riley) after he meets Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). While Dean doesn’t have the rather academic background of most of Sal’s friends, he has a huge lust to experience life, constantly looking for ‘kicks’, whether that means drugs, parties, travelling or sexual experimentation. Moriarty’s party-first ask-questions-later attitude tends to sweep up many around him, who find his spontaneous world thrilling to be in.
Over the course of several years, the movie follows a series of trips Sal takes either with or involving Dean. What initially seems like the opportunity to truly experience life that Sal has been looking for, slowly reveals another side, when he sees the conflict between freedom and domesticity in those around him, and that Dean perhaps loses more than he gains due to his outlook on life, and so do those whose life he flits through.
In trying to be so reverently respectful to its source, the film slightly loses sight of the driving energy of On The Road – it’s rather unfortunate as in the few moments where it really does capture it, it highlights what’s missing the rest of the time. Salles doesn’t want to lose anything, but it means there are so many characters coming and going that it has to spend too much time introducing and saying goodbye to them that it rarely has time to allow them to feel integral or necessary. For example Kirsten Dunst has a few scenes as Camille, the women who may be able to tame Dean, but we see so little of her than when the couple have a huge blow-up, it seems more like she’s a hysterical over-reactor than someone who has plenty of reason to respond the way she does.
It’s never dull and the respect it shows to Kerouac means that enough of the original comes across to ensure it’s worth watching, but it rarely truly comes to life. Garrett Hedlund as Dean comes closest to truly erupting off the page and onto the screen, putting in an excellent performance. Most of the others are competent, but seem slightly trapped by the fact they’re characters from a classic book who were also real people (Kerouac’s book is largely autobiographical, so Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx is actually Allen Ginsberg, Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee is really William S. Burroughs) and seem slightly unsure how to handle that.
Those wondering whether like many film adaptations it’s been de-gayed will be pleased to hear that although it sometimes feels like it’s being a tiny bit coy, the film doesn’t ignore Dean’s sexually ambiguous nature. He gets involved with Carlo Marx and has a sexual encounter with Steve Buscemi, as well as inviting Sal into bed with him and Marylou (Kristen Stewart), but the film doesn’t really question what Dean’s getting from all this and whether it reflects his sexuality or just his attitude on life.
It’s not a bad movie and it looks gorgeous on Blu-ray, with the excellent picture quality really showing off the impressive cinematography, but while competent, it’s more like a well written essay on Kerouac’s book than a film that lives and breathes on its own.
Overall Verdict: Gorgeous to look at, fairly well acted and never dull, Salles’ take on Kerouac tends to be so reverential to its source that it never completely comes to life.
Reviewer: Tim Isaac