Among the great might-have-beens of cinema are Greta Garbo as Dorian Gray, Ingmar Bergman directing Barbra Streisand in The Merry Widow, Orson Welles’s The Heart of Darkness, Sergei Eisenstein’s An American Tragedy, and the young Marlon Brando as Dean Moriarty in On the Road.
It has been a long and winding road to Jack Kerouac’s Bible of the Beat Generation being made into a film, almost as long as it took for him to get it published. Written in 1951, the largely autobiographical novel was only published in 1957. Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights in 1979, after having taken three years to complete Apocalypse Now. However, despite various attempts to forge a screenplay out of the rambling, episodic, anarchic novel, written in a stream-of-consciousness style, Coppola abandoned the project. Coppola’s son Roman had the idea in the late 1990s of filming it in 16mm in black and white with Leonardo DiCaprio and Matt Damon.
Before his death, Dennis Hopper revealed that at the start of the 1980s, he discussed the project with Jean-Luc Godard, who came to California. When Hopper arrived at Coppola’s San Francisco office to meet Godard, he found a note that read, “I can’t breathe the air here. I’ve returned to France. I’ve decided that there are no new routes in America.” Decades earlier, when the novel was first published, Kerouac approached Brando to buy the rights and appear in the film as Dean Moriarty. But Brando turned it down because he felt the structure of the novel was unadaptable to the screen. On the evidence of Walter Salles’s film, screened at Cannes, Brando was right on the money. “Brando is a shit,” wrote Kerouac to Allen Ginsberg. “He didn’t respond to a letter from America’s greatest writer.” By a certain stretch of the imagination, and some wishful thinking, one can see Brando as Dean Moriarty, James Dean as Sal Paradise (I know Dean died before the novel was published), and why not Marilyn Monroe as MarieLou, all directed by Godard?
Unfortunately, what we finally have is a stultifyingly faithful adaptation from both the 1957 novel and the 1951 scroll version, which Kerouac typed out on 120 taped-together sheets of tracing paper, only published in 2007. The screenplay, if one can call it that, written by Jose Rivera, is nothing but the novel transposed to the screen, ignoring the fact that what works on the page doesn’t necessarily work on film. If ever a screenplay needed the proverbial red pencil, this was it.
Rivera and Salles were also responsible for the equally faithful, starry-eyed Motorcycle Diaries (2004), also about two young men (Ernesto Guevara and Alberto Granado) on the road. The film takes the memoirs at face value, so when Guevara (played as Princess Diana by Gael GarcÃa Bernal), after embracing lepers, swims across the river that separates the two societies of the leper colony to spend the night in a leper shack, one wonders why he didn’t just walk across the water.
Before that there are numerous scenes of sex, drugs, driving, and jazz, none of them particularly absorbing or innovative. I’ve never known hedonism to be so little fun. At one stage, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), the passive narrator and would-be writer, is asked, “Are you going somewhere or are you just going?’ It was a question I wanted to ask the film. According to Kerouac, On the Road “was really a story about two Catholic buddies roaming the country in search of God. And we found him. I found him in the sky, in Market Street San Francisco (those 2 visions), and Dean (Neal) had God sweating out of his forehead all the way. THERE IS NO OTHER WAY OUT FOR THE HOLY MAN: HE MUST SWEAT FOR GOD. And once he has found Him, the Godhood of God is forever established and really must not be spoken about.” Whatever that means, it’s more interesting than anything that can be found in the film.
The performances by Hedlund and Riley, as the renamed Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac, supported by Tom Sturridge (Carlo Marx aka Alan Ginsberg) Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, and Viggo Mortensen (made to look like William Burroughs), cannot be faulted. But why are we supposed to admire them? In the novel, they come alive. “They danced down the streets like dingledodies, and I shambled after as I’ve been doing all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn.” In the film, they fail to “burn, burn, burn.”
In the book, the quotes from Joyce, Nietzsche, Celine, Rimbaud, and Proust seem relevant. In the film, they are merely specious. Shots of novels by Virginia Woolf and Proust and a picture of Rimbaud are used as props with little significance. In a blog, fellow critic Jonathan Romney wondered, with all the partying, how the characters in the film ever had time to read Proust. The answer is that they didn’t. Sal Paradise never gets beyond Swann’s Way, a copy of which he always has at hand over the years. Any intellectual talk is perfunctory. Surprisingly, so is the music, the use of which is very disappointing. Apart from snatches of some jazz and blues, the only extended musical sequences are a couple dancing to Ella Fitzgerald’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” and Coati Mundi taking off Slim Gaillard singing “Yep-Roc-Heresy.”
If you really want to breathe the spirit of the Beats, I recommend watching Robert Frank’s 30-minute Pull My Daisy (1959), written and narrated by Kerouac, with Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Larry Rivers, and Peter Orlovsky in the cast, or read or reread the 20th-century American classic.