Despite being dubbed the ‘unfilmable’ by auteurs and literary critics alike, the archetypal American road trip story has finally hit the silver screen. After five arduous years in the making, Walter Salles’s adaptation of the 1957 Jack Kerouac ‘beat’ novel, On the Road, met a tidal wave of mixed reviews upon its recent release, ranging from devout admiration to almighty contempt. Unfortunately, the majority of critiques seem to correlate with the latter…
On the Road is a tale of youthful passion, spontaneity and, most importantly, the freedom inured through life on the road. Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter-ego and the novel’s protagonist, affords us a birds-eye view of the American hipster scene and all that the ‘beat’ lifestyle entailed in the wake of the second world war, through an autobiographical narrative. A writer by trade, Sal eventually comes to illustrate his road tripping experiences in a memoir.
Over a series of criss-cross tours of the United States, we bear witness to the intricate relationship between Sal and his closest companion, Dean Moriarty – an untamed young maverick in pursuit of life’s greatest pleasures. It is Moriarty, an incarnation of the well-known ‘beat’ personality, Neal Cassady, who exposes Sal to everything that makes this film appealing to a college audience: sex, drugs and the rock ‘n’ roll of the time – jazz.
Arguably what makes the novel such a journey in itself is the unique and blatant way in which the prose is written. Despite sticking quite rigidly to the original storyline, Salles fails to achieve that sense of adventure found in Kerouac’s language onscreen. Many critics have deemed the film’s plot far too stagnant and incoherent for an audience under the impression that they are viewing a road movie. In many ways they are justified in this opinion too.
However, something which translates rather well to the big screen adaptation is the essence of the original novel. This can be distilled to a single term which is peppered throughout the narrative: ‘kicks’; care-free fun. On the other hand, what Salles’s vision disregards is the utter poignancy that overshadows and consequently undermines these ‘kicks’. The most vibrant scenes of the film are characterised by psychedelia, erratic saxophone solos in jazz clubs and, inevitably, sex; in contrast, however, the most forced, wooden scenes are those definitive moments when it becomes clear that life on the road does not allow for the main characters to evade those hardships of the outdated American society into which they were born and raised. As is to be expected, the director focuses on the more exciting and enticing aspects of road tripping, assigning the deeper issues of the original novel a backseat.
The cast is probably the movie’s greatest shortcoming though. One would expect Kerouac to contort and cringe in his grave at the notion of Kristen Stewart featuring high in the cast list of the film. To complement this, the author’s alter-ego (and the novel’s protagonist), Sal Paradise, is embodied by Sam Riley – a British actor with a less-than-credible New York accent.
Nonetheless, it is a noble flick, worthy of a watch if you’re feeling particularly bohemian.