How do you make a movie version of “On the Road,” author Jack Kerouac’s near stream-of-consciousness ode to bumming back and forth across Eisenhower-era 1950s America and Mexico in hitched rides, purloined cars and hobo boxcars in a blur of jazz joints, poetry and longing? The book is all about first-hand, lived experience expressed in a euphoric rush at the sheer joy of it all. As a director, how can you faithfully re-create that without losing that crucial sense of immediacy and intimacy, without making it feel like the guy who’s dating a woman who looks exactly like his ex-wife?
Many have wrestled with the problem in the decades since “On the Road” was published in 1957, and it finally falls to Brazilian director Walter Salles to give it a shot. It’s easy to see why he got the call from producer Francis Ford Coppola, who’s held the screen rights since the ’70s: Salles did an excellent job with a similar road-trip-as-self-discovery book, successfully adapting Che Guevara’s “The Motorcycle Diaries” in 2004. Salles believes that for a road movie to feel real, you have to actually travel, and he spent several years prior to filming tracing Kerouac’s roots and travels.
What Salles finally settled on is an “On the Road” that is not so much the novel per se, but an impressionistic homage to its creation. The story of young Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac, and played by Sam Riley ["Control"]) and his infatuation/admiration for the wired, restless Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady, played by Garrett Hedlund) and their crisscrossing of America remains intact, but Salles expands on it, drawing not only from “the scroll” — Kerouac’s original manuscript for the novel typed out in one mad Benzedrine-fueled rush — but from the memoirs and letters of friends and lovers whose lives informed the characters. Dean, in particular, comes across half the idolized American drifter of the novel, but also as the irresponsible, fickle husband and friend.
Salles has a really good feel for landscape and faces: Scenes where Sal hitches a desolate desert highway ride in the back of a truck with a bunch of migrant workers and shares a bottle, or where Dean and his on-again/off-again lover Marylou (Kristen Stewart) dance with wild abandon to some hyper-speed swing, capture the feel of the novel perfectly.
Even more perfect is a scene where Dean and Marylou are noisily getting it on while Sal and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, as the Allen Ginsberg character) try to sleep in the next room. Carlo loses his cool, only for Dean to invite everyone in. Cut, and the camera pans from the bedroom door — with breathy sounds of sex on the other side — across the seemingly empty room only to find Sal, the odd man out, sitting alone on the couch. Here is the locus of “On the Road”: Sal’s/Kerouac’s desire to be as cool, as free, as irresistible as Dean, and yet always feeling a bit more uptight, a bit more Catholic, a bit more self-conscious. It’s a great shot, and one that only someone who really gets Kerouac could have constructed.
Some critics have dissed this movie, saying that “nothing happens”; I wonder if any of them have actually read the book. Nothing happens in “On the Road” but everything: trying to live free, and to find meaning and beauty in life’s experiences. Kerouac fans should enjoy this as a riff on the book — just don’t expect it to be note-for-note.