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Review: On The Road

Walter Salles’ adaptation of the Beat Generation classic didn’t outshine the book…even if this reviewer hasn’t read it.

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in "On The Road".
Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in “On The Road”.

A confession: I found Jack Kerouac’s On The Road too difficult to get through on my first encounter and never found the time to return to it. The experimental style of writing is such that one needs to be ready, and dedicated, with the capacity to give both time and attention, which I’ve lacked for quite a while.

So I was pleased to have the chance to absorb its story in film with the release of Walter Salles’ adaptation. I’m fairly ambivalent about book-to-film adaptations in principle, although not a totalitarian objector. But it seemed to me an impossible task, dramatizing the seminal Beat work in all its chaos and colour. An older friend told me he would not see the film because of the book’s profound impact on him as a young man.

I had a passing fascination with the Beat writers after taking a history unit at university called “New York, New York”, which, perhaps due to the lecturer’s own fascination, dedicated a week to this collection of underground 1950s counter-culturalists, the forefathers of the hippie movement. Like so many of my heroes, for the Beat generation, drugs and alcohol were intimately connected to the creation of great art. Although Kerouac’s On The Road was written quickly, and quite soberly, during a three-week typewriter-bashing marathon at his home on West 20th Street in Manhattan, it was the outcome of a long and perhaps torturous process of living (and note-taking).

If you have ever been a young almost-writer, you will appreciate the veneration Jose Rivera’s screenplay shows for the writing process. No matter where the scotch-swilling or girl-chasing might be taking place, Sal Paradise’s (Sam Riley) notebook is always close at hand and the greater purpose of this hedonism – if that’s not an oxymoron – maintains its presence.

Faithful to the novel, Paradise, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) traverse a lot of ground during the film’s two hours. From New York City to Denver to San Francisco to Mexico, this is a film that is at once all about place and yet reveals places to be meaningless. For the story is the same no matter the scenery: the boys leave nothing behind but cigarette butts and scarred women.

It is a masculine world: the Beats are well cast as handsome but relatively unknown actors who bring grit and sensitivity in equal measures when required. The women are lifted beyond their rather inconsequential roles by powerful performances, particularly from Kristen Dunst, whose Camille is pushed to breaking point by her husband Moriarty’s careless comings and goings. Among the many reasons to question the Beat lifestyle, the litter of broken women left in their wake is probably the most acute.

On The Road is engaging but felt long, and seemed as if Salles was unsure what to exclude and where to end. The time spent in each city speeds up as the film progresses, and the final excursion to Mexico in particular felt rushed. Too often unnecessary scenes were included while others were not given the time to become poignant, such as Moriarty’s very brief search for his vagrant father in Denver. I’m happy to concede that part of the frenzy is intentional, to replicate the experience of its addled protagonists, but some tighter editing would not have gone astray.

This is a good film which will carry special resonance with anyone who has flirted with alternative culture or the writer’s life. I felt it underplayed the role of psychedelic drugs in favour of booze and marijuana, and was disappointed with Carlo Marx (the character based on Allen Ginsberg) being essentially written out of the film’s second half. But then again, as we writers are wont to say, go and read the book.