As was the case with Cosmopolis, On the Road suffers from a problematic relationship between source material and film adaptation. Whereas David Cronenberg’s approach of copying the book’s dialogue to assemble a screenplay produced an almost insufferably verbose movie, Walter Salles‘ film has other problems. Together with screenwriter Jose RIvera, he is most interested in the autobiographical element of On the Road, using Jack Kerouac‘s writing process to frame the story. It produces a vibrant road movie, but the spirit of its highly influential source material may have got lost in the process. “The fact that the surroundings, the atmosphere, the multitude of locations, the era and the music have all been well preserved does not help to capture the soul of these complex people, to involve yourself in their complicated relationships, in their hunger for life” (Carlos Boyero, El País).
On the Road is the story of Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) as told by his friend Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Jack Kerouac’s alter ego. Dean is one of those people that we have all come across in our lives, someone that men and women alike just gravitate towards. Life for him and with him is a constant quest for new experiences. Sal is swept along in the travels of Dean and his young wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Their journeys touch on themes such as accepting or rejecting social conventions and the draw of the frontier as part of the American lifestyle. Those themes are adequately developed and the actors “really give their best and struggle by the sweat of their brow and of their bodies, ever naked, greedy and hungry for life – and yet they do not stand a chance” (Tobias Kniebe, Süddeutsche Zeitung).
It has of course never been a secret that On the Road is largely autobiographical. Kerouac gave up unsuccessful attempts to invent plots and characters and just decided to write it all down as it happened. What director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera have done here is embed the plot of the novel in the story of Kerouac’s writing process, including his note-taking and the famous taped-together roll of paper on which he typed the original manuscript in a marathon three week session. In fact, the opening lines of the movie are a mixture of the opening lines of that manuscript and those of the published version, which are slightly different (the former talks about the death of his father, the latter about the end of his marriage). In addition, Kerouac’s French-Canadian descent is prominent in the movie, but absent in the novel. These little changes help in making this “a story about its own creation, and about the position of the thoughtful artist, actor and observer, who finds himself suddenly thrust into the heart of life” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde). The historical tale of how this novel came to be is clearly what Walter Salles is interested in bringing to the screen, with great attention to detail. And as such, he has made an appealing movie. But he may also have lost sight of the work at its heart.
One can ask the question whether a contemporary adaptation of On the Road is at all possible, considering the position that Kerouac assigns his female characters. “To be part of an artistic and sexual journey, but to then remain confined to sex (…) without the slightest chance of an independent identity – is a story which is impossible to relate today” (Tobias Kniebe, Süddeutsche Zeitung). That is why Salles has made Marylou a stronger and more sympathetic character, “no longer the scatterbrained sexual object” (Thomas Sotinel, Le Monde) who is knocked around by Dean Moriarty in the book. That new and improved version is brought to life in a strong, sensual performance by Kristen Stewart, who really finds her groove here. Marylou and her love triangle with Dean and Sal, along with the feverish jazz and bohemian lifestyles on display, make this a movie that will appeal to the current generation of twenty-somethings. Whether it will teach them anything about the Beat Generation remains in doubt.