Jack Kerouac’s On the Road (1957) frequently shows up on lists of books deemed “unfilmmable,” alongside other cult favorites, such as The Life of Pi, Watchmen, and The Hobbit (to name three that have also defied the label). What is it, though, that makes a book unfilmmable? Film critic Jesse Wente is said to have quipped, “A book is only unfilmable until someone makes a movie of it.” While this statement is literally true, it does not address the deeper metaphysical assumptions posited in the label “unfilmmable.” “Unfilmmable” suggests that whatever is unique and quintessential about a work is inseparable from its particular union of form and content. Notions of which literary qualities and devices can and cannot be translated into film language are as numerous as the readers and viewers who hold them. “Unfilmmable” is also rooted deeply in readers’ personal experiences with a book and fears that the filmmaking process will fail to replicate that experience—fears that, given the nature of nostalgia, translation, and filmmaking, cannot help but be realized. Most readers encounter On the Road at a transitional point in young adulthood when Sal and Dean’s yearning for freedom and sensory engagement (and their tandem frustration with conformity and the status quo) resonate with a marked energy. It would be impossible for any film or filmmaker to replicate the experience of reading On the Road. The best a film can offer is a cinematic experience—not a cinematic equivalent, but an alternative experience.
Director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera, both known for Motorcycle Diaries (2004), another “road trip” film of transcendent journeys, strive to offer such an experience in their adaptation of On the Road. Kerouac’s novel, begun in 1947, chronicles a decade of travel throughout America. Over the course of the novel, Salvatore “Sal” Paradise, the novel’s first person narrator and Kerouac stand-in, meets a host of characters, including Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg), Old Bull Lee (based on William S. Burroughs) Ed and Galatea Dunkel, Camille, Marylou, and, most importantly, Dean Moriarity (based on Neal Cassady), as well as several minor characters, whom he encounters on buses, trains, or while hitchhiking from coast to coast and back again. The book draws many of its themes from those trumpeted by the Beat Generation, such as personal freedom, self-discovery, and masculinity. The film, which stars Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty, and Kristen Stewart as Marylou, chronicles a similar, albeit abridged, course of travel for the main characters, and explores a similar host of themes. Yet whether Salles and Rivera’s On the Road works as a adaptation of Kerouac’s On the Road will depend largely on the expectations of individual audience members. Viewers expecting a beautifully shot film similar to Motorcycle Diaries will not be disappointed. Viewers expecting a faithful, cinematic recreation of Kerouac’s novel, or an intimate, psychological study of character might be.
Eric Gautier’s cinematography may be the film’s shining achievement. Many of the film’s early scenes unfold via close-ups and tightly framed shots that help replicate the novel’s limited perspective and almost claustrophobic network. This technique allows the film both to be faithful to the technical limitations and aesthetics of the period and to convey additional information about characters and their relationships. Conversations unfold via juxtaposed close-ups that foster a sense of intimacy that is then undercut by the alienation and isolation that each character feels (and that viewers may feel in watching them). We realize quickly that we are not viewing a coherent group as much as a collection of self-focused individuals, two of which, Dean and Carlo, lean more to the narcissistic side of self-focus. Gautier avoids many of the visual clichés that one might expect from a “road trip” movie. Tempting as it might be to supply viewers with sweeping panoramas or tableaus of principle characters dwarfed by majestic landscapes, On the Road restricts its vision largely to the car and the perspective afforded to passengers. We see the road much in the way that Sal, Dean, Marylou, and most of the other passengers see it: whirring by in streaks and color trails, beautifully blurred and distorted through a dirty or iced-over windshield.
The film also succeeds in expressing the Beat Generation’s exuberance, particularly in its use of jazz as a conduit for the zeitgeist—the frenzy of alcohol, drugs, poetry, literature, fresh thoughts and experiences. Similarly, the film also succeeds in capturing the novel’s rhythms and associative transitions through its own associative transitions, which some viewers may appreciate and others may find frustrating. The film includes titles that identify time and place shifts, but much of the action, character relationships, and character motivations remain largely unexplained.
The actors’ performances are all strong, particularly Kirsten Stewart’s, who, famous for her role in the Twilight series, portrays an understated, but complex Marylou in a performance that shares some of its subtlety with Stewart’s Joan Jett from The Runaways (2010). Marylou is, arguably, the only character that shows actual growth. She’s virtually non-existent in the first scene, but demonstrates an emotional range over the course of the road trip, particularly in her scenes with Sal. Kirsten Dunst, who has demonstrated the versatility of her talent through her roles in Bring it On (2000), Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind (2004), and Melancholia (2011), seems underused in a rather ho-hum performance as Camille. Elisabeth Moss, most recognized for her role as Peggy in the AMC series Mad Men, gives an admirable performance as Galatea Dunkel, but it seems almost too full of personality in such an understated film. On the Road boasts an impressive cast of extras that includes Steve Buscemi as the “Tall Thin Salesman,” Viggo Mortensen as Old Bill Lee, and Amy Adams as his wife, Jane.
Despite its many strengths, the film is a little unsatisfying. It offers little opportunity for viewers to connect with any of the characters emotionally. Do we want good things to happen for Sal and Dean? Sure. Will we be disappointed if they don’t? Eh, sure. As an adaptation, On the Road may be marginally more satisfying as it does aim for fidelity to Kerouac, but again, that depends on what readers are looking for in viewing. The film follows many adaptation conventions—including a voiceover narration that draws from the novel verbatim and a concluding montage that shows Sal/Kerouac typing the novel onto the legendary 120-foot scroll—but diehard Kerouac fans deigning to see the film will undoubtedly find fault. As one viewer grumbled after the Savannah Film Festival screening, “Dean Moriarity is supposed to have a Marine haircut. Everyone knows that!” His friend’s response—“Really? I don’t remember that”—hints at the problem of any adaptation, namely the inability of any film to live up to a reader’s very personal memory of a beloved book.
Published December 3, 2012.
Kate Newell is a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design where she teaches courses in literature, writing, and film adaptation. Her research focuses on issues of adaptation and other intersections of film, literature, illustration, comics, and video games.