Those fabled Roman Candles about which Jack Kerouac wrote so eloquently have faded into weak luminescence in the big-screen adaptation of his classic novel, On the Road.
A seminal work of the post World War II Beat Generation, Kerouac’s novel electrifies to this day, and the process of its creation has attained a mythological status as romantic as a road trip itself. Between 1947 and 1950, Kerouac documented his travels across America in a series of notebooks. Chief among the central figures is Dean Moriarty (the alter ego of Neal Cassady), whom Kerouac (named Sal Paradise in the novel) reveres and adores.
Eventually, Kerouac was to pour out his feelings on one long continuous scroll (sellotaped together from individual bits of paper) in the style of the improvisational jazz that defined his and his friends’ lives. It’s an enormously exciting novel, documenting little more than a series of road trips dotted with rampant drug-taking and promiscuity – but so dazzling is the prose style that the mundanity of the characters’ lives becomes riveting.
Sadly, the book confirms the frequent suspicion that many novels are unfilmable. Although the omens are good – director Walter Salles helmed The Motorcycle Diaries; it has an exciting, young cast headlined by Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund and Kristen Stewart – there’s a major speed-bump on this road: it’s impossible for the film to get inside Kerouac’s head.
The prose style is what powers the engine of the novel and by moving outside the perspective of the central character, the route undertaken by the movie becomes predictable, eventually settling for a series of episodic interludes that will leave fans of the novel underwhelmed and newbies bemused. Although dribs and drabs of Kerouac’s poetic narration slip through, the endless procession of car, road, sex and drugs (occasionally shifted around) becomes rather boring.
That’s not to say that the movie’s intentions are dishonorable. Salles gets terrific performances out of his young cast, especially Hedlund, who conveys Moriarty’s increasing disillusionment beautifully, particularly with regard to his sexual relationships. Stewart and Kirsten Dunst also excel as the two women whom Moriarty treats abysmally, and the movie is to be admired for not shying away from the unsavoury aspects of the central characters.
Riley is also superb as Paradise, a deceptively tricky role given that he is effectively the observer who would cement these people in the popular consciousness through the power of his novel. However, Riley is a strong actor and is able to convey the irrepressible desire for adventure lurking beneath the character’s skin, even in his most tranquil moments. Most impressive is the scene where the manuscript starts to take place: Riley’s wonderful facial expressions lending an intimate, human edge to a scenario that fans of the novel have no doubt visualised many times in their own head.
Yet for a movie grappling with the romantic implications of the open road and the vibrant glow of youth, it’s an oddly mechanical affair. In fact, Salles’ The Motorcycle Diaries channeled the spirit of Kerouac much more effectively. Although not without its strong moments (an extended sequence featuring Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs is amusingly eccentric) and segments of visual poetry (silhouetted characters in-car passing a cigarette back and forth to each other), it’s all very hit and miss.
The movie in fact seems to be blighted by John Carter-syndrome: by this point, we’re so familiar with the derivatives of the source material that the film version has nothing new to offer. Scenes of rampant promiscuity and reckless behaviour are ten-a-penny in many teen movies nowadays, and the film version of On the Road sadly feels like a hitchhiker who’s been left behind in the dust.