Featuring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Viggo Mortensen, Tom Sturridge, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams
Director: Walter Salles
Writer: Jose Rivera (based on Jack Kerouac’s novel On The Road)
Australian release date: Thursday, 27th September 2012
Review 1: rolanstein (one-word verdict: great)
Review 2: Karen (one-word verdict: pointless)
In late 40s America, young aspiring writer Sal Paradise hits the road in search of inspiration and adventure. His hipster travelling companions include the magnetic Dean Moriarty, hyperactive ex-jailbird, mad genius driver, sex fiend extraordinaire. Embracing black jazz culture and the dissolute lifestyle that goes with it, Sal, Dean, wife/ex-wife/lover Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and crew criss-cross the country as their fancy takes them, plunging with reckless and initially joyful abandon into a drink, drug and sex-fuelled odyssey of sensual excess.
Review 1: (rolanstein)
Apparently Francis Ford Coppola bought the movie rights to On The Road decades ago, intending to write and direct the film himself. He made several false starts over the years, eventually abandoning taking on the crafting aspects. His efforts to handball the writing and directing to others almost came off several times, but obstacles kept popping up. Finally, he found his man, Walter Salles (director of The Motorcycle Diaries). Sucked in, Walter.
Lawd knows, you’d have to be courageous, foolish, or both to take on the daunting project of adapting this celebrated and despised work to film. It was divisive as a novel, derided by academics and the literary establishment as indulgent, pretentious drivel glorifying profligacy, venerated by the young in ecstatic terms as the subversive bible of the Beat generation and a major literary breakthrough signalling the beginning of a new age of American bohemianism.
As a film, it risks being spurned by both camps.
The fuddy duddy snob bunch will have judged it harshly in advance on the basis of the perceived shortcomings of the book. This mob dismisses the Beats and their art, with no correspondence entered into. How are they going to bring even a semblance of open-mindedness to a film adaptation of a novel that is a manifesto of a movement that offends their aesthetic – and moral (let’s announce the elephant in the room) – sensibilities?
Devotees of the novel, on the other hand, are going to apply standards impossible to meet. Kerouac’s extravagantly lyrical prose is manic and hyper-charged, crackling with electric energy. How the hell is that going to be transposed to the cinematic form?
Well, it ain’t, no way no how, because the intensity and poetry of the book is essentially literary in quality. The film is always going to come off badly in any comparison with the novel.
In any case, shouldn’t a film be judged on its own terms – as a film, not a filmed version of a book? To state the bleeding obvious, the media of literature and film are intrinsically different. It is simply invalid to hold them up against each other.
Which leads to a huge and probably insurmountable problem. If you’ve read the book – and if you are even mildly culturally engaged, read, and are past adolescence, odds are you will have – how do you come to the movie with a fresh slate (an ideal for the reviewer)?
I say you can’t. I speak as one with a foot in opposing camps.
I was utterly inhabited by the novel when I first read it in my early twenties. This was a pure, naïve reading. I embraced the entire mythology of the book, caught in the sheer youthful romance, the subversion, the reckless abandoned energy of it all. One of a few hugely seductive novels that inhabited me and changed my life (not necessarily always for the better), it was a major influence behind one of my best ever decisions – to quit work on a one-way ticket to hitchhike my way around the UK and the Continent.
A decade later, I re-read the book. This time I found myself uncomfortable with aspects of it. I was taken aback by the rampant sexism (well, not by the sexism as such, which was merely typical of the era, but by the realisation that I had not even noticed it first time around) and contemptuous of the hero, Dean Moriarty, whom I now perceived as a selfish jerk, irresponsible in the worst of ways. And I was irritated by Kerouac’s gushing, although still swept along by the poetic force of his writing, still enthralled by irresistible elements such as his rapturous descriptions of the music of the jazz cats the Beats embraced. But the luminosity, the magic of my first experience of the book, was gone.
Years later again, as a mature-age student I studied Beat literature during my degree course, and wrote essays on On The Road. By this time I had found a balance, appreciating the work for what it was, but distanced from some of its qualities that had so entranced me in my youth. It is my contention that only the young can get the best out of this book.
I would argue the same about the movie. Don’t listen to the old fart reviewers dissing the movie with curious relish – their time has come and gone (if it ever came at all). They are part of the Establishment Kerouac and the Beats were raging against, the forward shift in chronology notwithstanding.
Don’t listen to me, either. Firstly, I’m also an old fart (although an immature one, which works in my favour here – there’s a first for everything). Secondly, I freely acknowledge the On The Road baggage that I bring to my assessment. It is impossible to view this movie completely objectively, because it is impossible to set aside the novel and one’s response(s) to it. That goes for every reviewer who has read the book, or has a position on it. Don’t trust any of us with this movie. Especially those who claim objectivity.
A long, long preamble, yes. But necessary in this case. If On The Road was just a novel, it would be different, but it’s not – it’s a true cultural icon. It has a life and cultural impact way outside its parameters as a work of literature. That’s why this film cannot be viewed as just another cinematic adaptation of a novel.
To the review, then.
Well, hang dry and quarter me slowly, but vastly contrary to my expectations I loved this movie! I can’t imagine it being done much better. Of course it doesn’t capture the amphetamine energy of Kerouac’s writing, or its lyrical pyrotechnics – how could it? I’ll say it again: literature and film are different media; the essential qualities of one cannot be transposed into the other.
Excuse me while I alight carefully (arthritis) from my pedestal. That’s better.
The movie opens with someone walking down a road. Walker’s POV, looking down on their dusty boots. Their breathing is audible, a little laboured. City slicker, not road fit. Pant pant…step step step…the rhythm of the road. I am transported back to my early hitching days in the UK. It was just like this in the beginning. New backpack, tired shoulders, fixed on my boots as I trekked along a road waiting for a car to come by. Steps in synch with breathing. Perfect.
The camera draws back. If we’ve read the book we know it’s Kerouac/Sal Paradise. Good likeness, Sam Riley. Easy to believe in him as Sal.
A pickup truck comes past, one of those classic old American farm jobs like Superboy’s old man drives. Sal thumbs it down. Dragged up the side and into the back by one of several other drifters. They chat, joke, someone produces a bottle of spirits and they pass it around. Harvested wheat fields roll past. The blokes are on their way to jobs. “You goin’ somewhere?” one asks Sal. “Or just goin’.”
What a glorious sense of freedom and excitement, being on the road. I had almost forgotten, but the movie brought it flooding back, tapped right into the feeling. I could have whooped for joy at the memory, but the cinema was packed and I’m a reserved soul.
If you’ve never experienced the exhilaration of hitching on the open road without a care and jagging a lift through splendid surrounds to wherever the driver drops you, you’re probably not going to get the rush I got from this great intro. You mightn’t find it remarkable at all. I thought it was pitch perfect, magnificent. See how subjective this reviewing shit can be?
I’ve already made the point that any cinematic attempt to capture the wild energy and breakneck pace of Kerouac’s writing is not going to work. It’s going to end up like a beatnik version of 24 Hour Party People on fast forward. That is, unbearably intense. Unwatchable.
So, the only workable option for Salles was to do the film as he has – slowed down to a pace suited to film, while doing his best to stay true to the spirit of the novel. Some ask! Characterisation is of primary importance in pulling this bunny out of the hat. If the characters ain’t right, nothing else will be either.
They’re spot on. The actors have done a superb job, in the main, in taking on the roles of Kerouac’s characters. Sam Riley delivers on the promise of his opening scenes. The Allen Ginsberg-based character, Carol Marx (Tom Sturridge), is full of pretentious poet-speak, but that’s how he’s supposed to be. He’s a young poet feeling his way, trying for irreverence and irony while taking himself oh-so-seriously as a wordsmith. Always a touch embarrassing. The Beat lingo could have come across as laughable, but is sensibly toned down in most of the characters, leaving Carlo to carry the torch in this respect. Kristen Stewart seems a bit miscast – she doesn’t quite have the 40s look – but there’s nothing wrong with her performance. And she’s damned hot as the sexually liberated, moody Marylou. Kirsten Dunst as Dean Moriarty’s second wife, Camille, is a weak link, the only obviously miscast actor. She doesn’t come across as Dean’s type, or he hers, and her appeal for him – “respectability” – doesn’t ring true.
Garrett Hedlund pulls off the very challenging lead role as the charismatic Dean Moriarty with panache, radiating the arresting charm and compelling energy that is so necessary in mitigating against his near-psychopathic selfishness. His Moriarty is not quite the romanticised figure of the novel, whom I recall as a god of hipster cool. Here, his flaws are writ far larger.
He is presented as a leader of the pack with a black hole at his core, an abandoned child who can’t grow up, still yearning for the love he never had, unable to give in order to receive. This psychological complexity and depth may have been there in the novel, but it struggled for oxygen in the excesses of Kerouac’s romanticisation of the character. Hedlund manages to arouse pity by overtly humanising the hip god, in effect demythologising him.
My favourite character, though, is morphine-addicted Old Bull Lee (based on William Burroughs), who is given an engaging eccentricity and wry comic touch by Viggo Mortensen. Mortensen makes the absolute most of his limited screen time.
The narrative is sprawling and loose, as in the book, mirroring the characters’ experiential live-for-the-moment-and-see-where-we-end-up approach to travel and life. The point is the journey, not its destination. And to wring the most out of it, every minute of the way. Which means wild parties (one party scene just blasts, marking the tribe’s hedonistic high water mark), sex, booze, drugs (mostly “weed” and Benzedrine, the latter sourced from inhalers broken open to release the kickin’ white powder within), soaring jazz – and of course, tearing down the highway with manic Dean at the wheel keeping pulse rates high and patrolmen busy.
All quintessential On The Road stuff. All very bloody well executed.
However, while the movie is as far as possible a faithful and respectful rendition of the book, it is larger – one of its saving graces – in that it shows consequences. The Beat culture is youth-orientated; the intensity, recklessness and hedonistic abandon cannot last. You can’t go on burning, burning, burning. Eventually you tone down or burn out. Nostalgia-inducing and sad, but even sadder is the raging Peter Pan, the Dean Moriarty, who doesn’t know when the party is over – or doesn’t want to know. There’s pathos in that, fully exploited as the movie draws to its inevitable close, which is predictable and right. No prizes for guessing how that goes, more or less.
But it’s the getting there that counts – and I enjoyed every well-crafted frame.
Review 2: (Karen)
Watching On the Road is like being straight and sober at a party where everyone else is wired or drunk and morals have been thrown to the winds. I sat disapprovingly through the entire 137 minutes, hoping for a payoff, a redeeming feature, or any clue about the point of this film.
I don’t ask, I should point out, about the point of the novel, which has a well-deserved reputation as a seminal text of its time, and has at its centre a portrait of a damaged, clever, charismatic figure: Dean Moriarty in the book, Neal Cassady in real life. I’ve read On the Road more than once, and have been interested enough to read biographies of Cassady and Jack Kerouac, its author, as well as other key members of the “Beat” scene. So I was keen to see how the filmmakers would pack the amount of detail in every page into a film.
And the answer is: they didn’t. They have simply left out huge contextual chunks – the bits that for me made sense of the whole catastrophe. Some of these missing bits characterised Dean Moriarty and made clear why he was tolerated by his intellectual friends: the mystique that preceded him, his huge curiosity, his enthusiasm for the intellectual life, his appreciation of their talents, and his vitality.
What is left is a misogynist petty criminal, drug abuser and alcoholic…and that’s at the beginning of the film – he goes downhill by the end! Mmm. Garrett Hedlund as Dean has little to work with. Where are his manic dialogue, his thirst for reading? A scene where he persuades his companions to enact his sexual fantasy by stripping naked (etc!) while driving along the highway, and a couple involving music and dancing, are the sort-of fun exceptions to the dogged and apparently joyless pursuit of sexual or drug-induced release. There’s a whole thread about his search for his father that is only briefly mentioned in this film; an opportunity lost, I think.
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise, the Kerouac figure and the “eyes” of the film, is a more successful realisation. But the film writers have meddled with the facts here, too. The film-Sal goes on the road with Dean after the death of his father; the book-Sal does so after splitting up with his wife. It’s quite a difference, and sets up film-Sal as something of an innocent and potentially a follower; while book-Sal is quite clear-eyed about his relationship with Dean, as befits someone who was well-educated and some years older. But his commitment to his writing, and his technique of joining up paper so he could type without the interruption of winding in new sheets are well depicted; although I don’t forgive the shocking cliché of the writer pulling out the unsatisfactory page, crumpling it and discarding it on the floor.
Other characters make occasional or brief appearances: Carlo Marx, the fictional representation of Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge) and Old Bull Lee (William Burroughs, played by Viggo Mortensen), without demonstrating the full extent of the relationships that existed in the novel or in real life. The women, Dean’s first wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), his second wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst), and Old Bull Lee’s wife Jane (Amy Adams) are peripheral to the business, each in her own way damaged by the behaviour of their men and/or their own general fecklessness, and exerting minimal agency, except for Camille, who has the good sense to send Dean packing.
The squalor and grind of it all give little sense of how the road trips fuelled any creativity. There are only a couple of scenes, too, that suggest the freshness and immediacy of Kerouac’s writing style: particularly the scene of dancing, where the colour, movement and swift choppy editing correlate with the detail and repetition of the prose.
As a road movie, it lacks enough of the episodic encounters that typically teach the main characters life lessons. (There’s one, for example, where Sal joins an itinerant cotton-picking team. He beds down with a young woman travelling with her father and her young son – presumably the result of a previous brief encounter – and then goes on his way, drawn back to his own life. She seems completely okay with this, and he certainly is; but I’m not sure who has learned anything, and it comes across as a shallow colour piece.)
And I can’t not mention one of my film bugbears: a scene where a driver converses with his passenger and takes his eyes off the road for long periods of time. CHEESES! This drives me mad. I know that the actual car is probably on a flatbed truck, and no actors will be harmed in the making of the film, but hello, directors, verisimilitude?!!!
I can’t imagine what a younger audience, and particularly those who have not read On the Road, would make of the film. Are they more likely to enjoy it, or less? For me it doesn’t work as a book adaptation because it misses out on so much detail, and doesn’t work as a film because it doesn’t have a compelling narrative line (and is without other compensations).
If you want the On the Road experience, read the book. Or hit the road yourself.
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