The Independent London Newspaper

CINEMA: On The Road steers too far away from Kerouac's seminal Beatnik novel

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Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in On The Road

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in On The Road

Published: 11 October, 2012
by DAN CARRIER

ON THE ROAD
Directed by Walter Salles
Certificate 15
Rating: 3 Out Of 5 Stars

IT has taken many years for a film-maker to take a deep breath and dive headfirst into such a classic of American literature.

And while screen writer Jose Rivera and director Walter Salles must be applauded for having the courage to translate the brilliance of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beatnik novel On the Road to the big screen, the reasons it has taken so long to get it off the page and on to celluloid become obvious as the opening scenes roll.

Kerouac’s style of writing leaves so much to the imagination that to prompt a similar sensation while watching a film version is nigh on impossible.

For those who have yet to read the book – and you should do so long before you begin to even consider seeing this film – the story goes like this: Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) is a wannabe writer living a proto-Beatnik life in New York dives. He meets a recently released convict Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and suddenly we are catapulted into a harum-scarum story of the pair looking to find America – and themselves.

They traverse the continent from New York to San Francisco, head south and north and then back again. They bum dimes, nick food, they hitch lifts and pawn watches for gas, all the while sleeping about and with each other, and treating people who love them with a hearty disdain and a sense that taking liberties is fine as they’re young and free and that’s just what kids do...

The book suggests much misbehaviour without ever really graphically describing the drugs and sex they enjoyed: this film, however, uses such debauchery as its primary calling card. Sal’s motivations for such constant movement are hard to come by, nor is any lyrical brilliance offered to help the rolling countryside be any more stimulating than staring out the window on a very long car journey with ageing relatives for company.

Furthermore, the atmosphere of a nation exhausted by war but booming with victory is not even blinked at. We don’t have any real thoughts offered on a generation trying to escape the bland conformity between the end of the war and the rise of rock ’n’ roll. This was an America that had fought for freedom to find itself mired in McCarthyism – again, a vital point in the book but one ignored by the film.

Kerouac’s book is a wonderful piece of social history, and captures the American road trip in the same way Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood did with his two murder suspects heading out to see the nation. This film pays homage to this fact but without putting it into any type of context.

Kerouac created the coolest characters of the 20th century, but to simply pick some good-looking actors and to link scenes with double bass jazz licks doesn’t do enough to make you wish for youth and an open road. In fact, it makes home seem the opposite of boring and old age a sensible friend to greet.

The major flaw here is the fact this film fails to capture either the atmosphere of a time nor the incredible characters painted by Kerouac.

Instead it is seen through a director’s idea of what would be regarded as cool today: it tries far too hard to be the film for a generation of contemporary hipsters, and not enough to honestly talk about a post-war generation seeking to find new ways of living in a brave new world.

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