The announcement of Walter Salles’ adaptation of Kerouac’s 1957 beat novel On the Road was met with some scepticism, potentially due to the rambling quality of the novel’s narrative. The main challenge was not to create a truly faithful translation, but to capture the frenzied feeling of the source material.
The first techniques employed to this end are perhaps a little obvious; handheld cameras and extensive use of sound effects create claustrophobia rather than euphoria as Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) first appear. This improves as the film continues, and later use of jump cuts effectively portray the fast pace of the characters’ lives and suggest their drug-addled perceptions.
Screenwriter Jose Rivera makes no attempt to fabricate a more solid backbone for the story beyond the slightly sporadic focus on Dean Moriarty from the novel. Intimate fans of the book will be pleased by the inclusion of familiar digressions, but other viewers may be less than impressed by the lack of structure. For example, the story of Sal’s short-lived relationship with Terry is not omitted although it defers focus on Dean. This allows for the film’s most impressive sets; bedraggled canvas tents flutter in the wind, withstanding the weather just as Sal (temporarily) withstands his work as a cotton picker. Throughout panoramic location shots include the audience in Sal, Dean and Marylou’s experiences; as Sal remarks in the novel, we are ‘reading the American landscape’.
Salles’ film also places emphasis on Sal as a writer. This is achieved through a sporadic voice over using text taken from the novel. However, more thoughtful is the tying of the film to the autobiographical roots of Kerouac’s text. The final act sees an energized Sal tape several sheets of paper together and load them into his typewriter, just as Kerouac is rumoured to have done when writing On the Road. It is here that the frantic beat lifestyle is best expressed.
Salles’ attempt to maintain this urgency and pace results in some tantalisingly brief performances; skilled and respected actors such as Steve Buscemi and Amy Adams are reduced to little more than cameos.
The unlikely casting of Kristen Stewart as 16 year old Marylou is more fruitful. Stewart is able to modify her voice in order to play a character much younger than her, and crafts a multi-faceted performance. She is at once childlike and adventurous, yet succeeds in expressing yearning for a life of greater stability than that which she finds on the road. Sam Riley’s performance is characteristically understated, although he is more likeable here than as the psychotic Pinkie in 2010’s Brighton Rock. Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Dean provides the bedrock; his exuberance engages the audience just as Dean’s affects his fellow travellers. They are fascinated by his Peter Pan-like nature; however, the boy who will not grow up ultimately burns out instead.
The presentation of Carlo’s feeling for Dean is over-exaggerated; his attraction is clearly stated rather than subtly suggested. This gesturing towards an exploration of homosexuality becomes the weakest element of the film. Although Sturridge’s emotive performance is likely to be met with sympathy the storyline is under-developed, especially when compared to the heterosexual relationships within the film.
Due to the difference in medium Salles’ On the Road lacks Sal’s first person perspective, and therefore the overarching attitude is that of the filmmakers; the sympathetic view of Dean’s wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and baby suggests a desire to portray Dean as cruel. However, Salles also leaves room for a more sympathetic interpretation with the heart-rending image of the dirty, downtrodden Dean, aptly juxtaposed with a matured and suited Sal as the film ends.
The adaptation demonstrates that Kerouac’s narrative still has the power to infect youngsters with a desire to travel, and even to make them nostalgic for a time they never even knew. Salles makes each member of the audience a fly on the wall, or a part of the journey, rather than an outsider hearing about someone else’s life.
On the Road is released on October 12th.