Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness style of writing is an energetic mix of impressions and observations, made visual in the film adaptation of his classic novel On the Road where Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) experiences adventure, drugs, sex, jazz and an intense friendship while travelling around America during a time of great cultural shifts and tensions. As with the novel the film is told from Paradise’s interior view of the world where his nonconformity was part revolutionary and part youthful self-indulgence. The film doesn’t depict the broader social and political issues of the era as Paradise was more focused on cultivating experiences and discovering America via a series of road trips with his best friend and muse Dean Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund and based on Kerouac’s fellow Beat Generation member Neal Cassady).
On the Road has long been declared ‘unfilmable’, which is only worth mentioning to illustrate how narrowly some people regard cinema. A film adaptation of On the Road that conforms to a classical Hollywood cause-and-effect narrative structure probably would never work, but fortunately not all films are made adhering to the Hollywood tradition. While the term ‘art house’ is mainly used today as a catchall marketing label for a wide range of films, it once meant films that genuinely aspired to something different to the dominant product coming out of the American studio system. For example, the various waves of European art-house cinema movements that occurred in the 1950s and 1960s deliberately went against Hollywood conventions to focus on things like character subjectivity and challenging established film style to express ideology, inspire active thought rather than passive viewing, and create impressions of places, people and ideas. In America there were various avant-garde and counter-culture movements doing similar experiments with narrative cinema. American filmmaker John Cassavetes’s early improvised and cinéma vérité style of cinema in the mid 1950s coincided with the publication of On the Road in 1957. These are the cinema movements that make On the Road extremely filmable, resulting in director Walter Salles and writer José Rivera’s absorbing adaptation.
The film style reflects the interior focus of the material and captures the essence of moments rather than facilitating a traditional narrative. Scenes at parties and in music clubs are tightly framed, often shot with a disorientating sweeping camera and frequently contain dialogue drowned out by the music. Such scenes have a seductive mix of energy and immediacy that expresses the Shock of the New as experienced by the Beat Generation’s lust for life and experimentation. As a contrast the scenes of the American natural and urban landscapes are warmly lit and soft focused to convey the romanticised vision of life on the road.
While On the Road is a series of impressionistic moments, it would be a mistake to dismiss it as aimless. The relationship between Paradise and Moriarty is a symbiotic one based on the desire both men have to replace their absent fathers. Paradise begins his travels after the death of his father while Moriarty is continually searching for his, based on scraps of information that he is living derelict on the streets somewhere. If the film ever does feel laborious it is during the final part of the film, which initially seems like one sequence too many. However, this is because for Paradise it is one adventure too many while for Moriarty the desire to pursue an impossible ideal and maintain the dream is too strong. The final stages of the film are some of the most powerful in how they portray the dark side to the young men’s adventures, which includes a level of excess that cannot be maintained and a destructively neglectful treatment of the women in their lives. There is also a scene where they go to hear music and cannot get into a club unless they hire coats, suggesting that the counterculture they once embraced as their own has now been absorbed into the mainstream, removing its potency and purpose.
While Riley and Hedlund are superb as Paradise and Moriarty, a real strength of the film is the performances by the supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen who channels William S Burroughs through the Old Bull Lee character beautifully, as well as Amy Adams who plays his wife Jane, based on Joan Vollmer. Kristen Stewart is sensational as Marylou (based on Luanne Henderson), the teenage girl Moriarty marries and then travels with. Stewart portrays Marylou as a wild, passionate, liberated and free willed person while also giving her a melancholic edge since she knows her adventures with Moriarty are finite. As Moriarty’s second wife Camille (based on Carolyn Cassady), Kirsten Dunst articulates the anger and disappointment of a woman who realises she is just a part of her husband’s grand adventure and not allowed to have her own. While the female characters are barely given a voice in the novel, the inclusion of extra details from the filmmakers (some of which came from Carolyn Cassady’s autobiography Off the Road) gives the film a welcomed extra dimension.
While other adaptations of seminal Beat works, such as Howl (Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, 2010) and Naked Lunch (David Cronenberg, 1991) have incorporated biographical detail with the hallucinogenic imagery and experimental approach from the original texts, On the Road is a much more straightforward adaptation. The film even has the same pleasantly casual tone of the novel where the mind of the reader/viewer is allowed to drift to then come back and pick up on the next sensation on offer. While fidelity to source material is an unreasonable and unrealistic way to evaluate the value of a film adapted from a novel (see ‘The book is never better than the film’), it is remarkable when a film so faithfully captures the spirit of the original text. Salles has done exactly that with the film adaptation of On the Road, resulting in a cinematic treat for lovers of Beat literature and in particular Kerouac’s novel.