On The Road – From Book To Film

Due to being a massive fan of the novel, I didn’t have a positive outlook when going into this film. For me, what is essential to the success of the book are Jack Kerouac’s words and in particular his unflinching stream of consciousness delivery. This classic modern novel is mainly structured around several road trips Kerouac (Sal Paradise) took with his friend Neal Cassidy (Dean Moriarty.) What is essential to this, therefore, is the idea of a journey to discovery, what is experienced on the way being more important than the destination itself. A repeated motif is the importance of moving. If you stay in one place, you and your ideas will stagnate. For me the simple, continuous image of a road stretching into the distance encapsulates the power and message of Kerouac’s words. In my view this is almost opposite to the fast paced, jump cut films we see so much today. Time in Hollywood is by no means linear. I didn’t see how the poetic rhythms of the novel could translate to screen.

I am not at this point going to turn around and say I was proved entirely wrong. Fooled you. However there were aspects of the film that were very successful. What may have been lost from the words was gained in the stunning cinematography. The sections depicting the journeys on the road were particularly breath-taking. We were presented with image after image of beautiful and brutal scenes, the shots and colours more than making up for your imagination when reading. What also translated fantastically into live action was the joy and fury of the young beat generation. Scenes in parties and jazz bars were so frenetic that you could almost feel the heat and freedom burning from these young people, swaggering into their ‘adult’ lives.

There were some additions to the story. The homosexual relationship between Carlo Marx and Dean was fully realised in the film whereas in the book it is merely an underlying suggestion. Carlo’s ‘despair’ in his feelings towards Dean added an interesting tension and emotion. The choice could also be justified in that Allan Ginsberg (the poet Carlo is based on) was an open homosexual. The relationship is also very similar to a storyline in Kerouac’s novel collaboration with William Burroughs, ‘And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks.’ This is also an example of the film’s successes in demonstrating the highs and lows of Dean’s carefree and careless lifestyle.

The section where Dean prostitutes himself to a middle aged man is more contentious. In the novel Dean tries to push for money but is turned down. Salles decides to have Dean go through with the act, which is vividly displayed on screen. Perhaps he is trying to demonstrate not only the desperation for money but also Dean’s absolute dedication to seeking out new experiences and living in the moment. Ultimately I felt that it was superfluous and unjustified. This is an example of several moments and scenes in the film that are unnecessarily oversexed. Whilst sex and drugs are prevalent in the novel, they are not what it’s about. They are signifiers and routes to the freedom Kerouac and his friends are searching for. At the end of his life Kerouac fell into an alcoholic depression, disillusioned that people had misunderstood his message. I felt that there were elements of this displayed in the film. A concentration on the excitement of the generation rather than the hole they were seeking to fill.

To break away from the novel and look at the success of the film on its own standing- the casting of Sal and Dean was fantastic. The chemistry and brotherhood between them was electric. This was vital for understanding why Sal stands by his friend despite his selfish and damaging behaviour. The most famous quote from the novel, which was narrated in the film though not entirely correctly (for a borderline obsessive, this was annoying) had echoes throughout the film, “I shambled after as I have done all my life after people who interest me, because the only people for me are the mad ones.” Kristen Stewart was not quite so successful. Her face and figure could pull off playing a 16 year old but every time she opened her mouth I was reminded of her inability to act.

Perhaps my main criticism of the film is linked to my initial reservation that the novel didn’t need a film adaptation. Kerouac’s writing captures a time and place like no other- it’s a piece of history. What is misunderstood by viewing an oversexed version in our age is that we are far less restrained in our lives and choices than in the late 50s. Therefore to a modern audience sex and drug abuse is just that- abusive and selfish. Kerouac’s message is that these things were sought out as new experiences in order to break free from the traditional lives they were brought up to lead. Bob Dylan said of the novel, “it changed my life like it changed everyone else’s.” Being younger when I first read it, I certainly felt like the novel had freed me from something I didn’t know I was afraid of. What contemporary viewers and readers must remember is that Kerouac wasn’t trying to shock and impress, just show people there might be another way.

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