In 1957 American author Jack Keroauc wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to buy the rights to, and star in, Kerouac’s novel “On The Road“. Brando never replied and it took another twenty two years for Francis Ford Coppola to purchase the rights and then spend decades hiring different screenwriters all of whom tried, and failed, to adapt the notoriously tricky spontaneous prose; after all, even Kerouac knew the story could not work on screen, telling Brando “Don’t worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure … ” Fifty five years after Kerouac’s letter, Brazilian director Walter Salles has finally succeeded in being the one to take the unfilmable and turn it into a thoughtful character study – one that burns and explodes, but ultimately, still remains too long.
An iconic story, Kerouac’s “On The Road” was completed in three weeks on one long scroll, and is based on years of travel by Kerouac and his friends across America. A defining work of the postwar Beat Generation, the protagonists – Sal Paradise, Dean Moriarty, Carlo Marx and more – live life against a backdrop of jazz, poetry, and drug use. In 2010, over fifty years after Kerouac first wrote to Brando, “On The Road” finally went into production, with Salles behind the camera, and his Oscar-nominated “Motorcycle Diaries” collaborator Jose Rivera scripting.
What Rivera has cleverly done is take Kerouac’s original scroll – and not the edited print version – as the basis for his script which has allowed the story to become a character study, a tale of young men and women all searching for something bigger than themselves.
Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund, as Paradise and Moriarty respectively, are superb, having clearly embraced the Beat Camp that Salles put the cast through in pre-production, but it is Hedlund who shines, embodying the very best and worst of a character for whom the audience sincerely feels for. Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx, the young unsure poet who sees beauty and hope in everything, even his unrequited love for Moriarty, is a revelation, his presence on screen often bringing what is a very long film back to life.
In keeping with the book, and attitudes of the time, the female characters are merely side stories but Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, and Elisabeth Moss all have enough screen presence to bring slightly more depth to their characters even with a limited screen time. However, it is Kirsten Dunst as Moriarty’s other wife Camille who is the most memorable, and after a stunning performance in last year’s “Melancholia”, Dunst’s talent is undeniable.
Since premiering at the Cannes Film Festival this year, Salles has cut nearly twenty minutes of film from “On The Road”, but even now, coming in at just under two hours, the film surprisingly still feels very long. The sense of urgency and constant motion has been captured brilliantly by Salles and the audience is never allowed to forget that Paradise is on the road, so perhaps even more of the road shots felt redundant and could have been done without.
“On The Road” has always divided readers, and Salles’ adaptation has and will do the same. Salles may have proved to Kerouac fans that the unfilmable film can be filmed and pleased many in the process, but in creating such a faithful adaptation, it’s possible the film will alienate those same critics of the book.