The long awaited movie version of Jack Kerouac's On The Road has finally been released. It premiered at the Cannes Film Festival on May 23, 2012. It had it's US premiere in New York City and Los Angeles on December 21, 2012. It had a general release March 2013 and released on DVD in the US in 2013.
It stars Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac), Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neil Cassady), Kristen Stewart as Marylou (LuAnne Henderson), and Kristen Dunst as Camille (Carolyn Cassady). The movie is directed by Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), screenplay by Jose Rivera. The movie is produced by Francis Ford Coppola and MK2.
The book continues to inspire a new generation of readers since its original publication in 1957. The book received moderate success at that time, reaching number 11 on the best seller list. It still continues to sell at a moderate but consistent level, appealing mostly to the younger audience. However, the Kerouac flame is also carried on by aging poets/writers and other 'artist' types, many who read Kerouac back when the book was first published. They are still enthusiastic and their ability to appreciate the creative word has not diminished over time. Some of the messengers, like musician/composer David Amram, actually hung out with Kerouac and are still spreading the message of bebop spontaneity.
The movie will also reach a new audience of people who have never even heard of Kerouac, much less read any of his books. It will be interesting to see what effect the movie will have on them and whether it will inspire them to read Kerouac (which is how everyone got to appreciate his writings up to this point). What I have always enjoyed was sticking a Kerouac paperback in my bag and reading it in new and interesting places: whether in a cafe in San Francisco, on the subway in New York City, or on the mountain top of Desolation Peak.
Some long-time Kerouac fans were concerned that if a movie were ever made of Kerouac's sacred tome, that it would be just another big overblown Hollywood production with no resemblance to the novel. It is important that the movie take into account the book's creative impact and literary importance.
The On The Road movie has been in the works for years, with the movie rights being owned by Francis Ford Coppola since the 1970s. Coppola's previous projects included The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and The Black Stallion, all which received critical acclaim.
The director, Brazilian born Walter Salles who directed The Motorcycle Diaries, was quoted in The Hollywood Reporter as saying, "On the Road is a seminal book that gave voice to a whole generation -- capturing its hunger for experience, unwillingness to accept imposed truths and dissatisfaction with the status quo."
Even Kerouac didn't expect the movie version to be identical to the book. He wrote in a letter to Marlon Brando dated 1957, "Don't worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I'll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I'll show you how Dean acts in real life...we can go visit him in Frisco..." [see below for more content of the letter]
The book had many false starts in the attempt to bring it to the big screen. It went through a series of screenplays before settling on the current one by Jose Rivera, the screenwriter for "The Motorcycle Diaries." Previous versions were written by Michael Herr, Barry Gifford, Russell Banks; and Coppola and his son Roman also took a stab at it. Supposedly, even Jack Kerouac wrote a screen play for his book. Unsubstantiated names of actors in the leading roles floated though the internet over the past 15 years and included Johnny Depp, Colin Farrell, Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt among others.
Coppola realized the immensity of the project. Coppola told reporter David Gritten in 1997 that he originally wanted to shoot On the Road in black and white on 16 mm film. Coppola said, "I tried to make it, but couldn't get the money... Now it keeps becoming more important."
Kerouac wrote what came to be known as On The Road on a 120 foot 'scroll' in 3 weeks in 1951. The book was finally published in 1957 by Viking. Gilbert Millstein praised the book in his review for the New York Times Book Review (though he was not the regular book reviewer) starting the review off with the following:
On the Road" is the second novel by Jack Kerouac, and its publication is a historic occasion in so far as the exposure of an authentic work of art is of any great moment in an age in which the attention is fragmented and the sensibilities are blunted by the superlatives of fashion (multiplied a millionfold by the speed and pound of communications). [read the complete 1957 review here]
The book went on to become what it became- a book that was influential in creative circles and whispered about in subterranean caverns beneath bars and bookstores throughout the four corners of the world. Now, some 50 years later, it is being made into a movie. We'll see what the reviewers have to say, and then we'll listen to what the movie goers have to say.
The On The Road movie received, at best, mixed reviews on its release. Of course, each person goes in with certain expectations (even the ones who go in with 'no' expectations). I could not impartially review the movie without certain biases based not just on reading the book but spending many years immersed in the Kerouac world. There are some in the Kerouac world who would love any On The Road movie, no matter how bad it was, because it was a Kerouac inspired movie. And there are some who think, regardless of how good the movie was, that it was a terrible movie because you shouldn't film the sacred book.
First, I do think that the book is filmable, maybe not easily, but if Vonnegut's Slaughterhouse 5 could be made into a movie that captured the essence of the book, then so could On The Road.
It does depend on what the reader thinks is the essence of On The Road. To me it was this, everything is sacred, not because it is important, but because we choose to treat 'everything' in a sacred manner. Kerouac celebrated everyday ordinary events and wrote about it, like writing about a drop of dew on a blade of grass.
Many years ago I met a computer tech guy who reminded me of the cartoon character Dilbert, down to the black framed glasses and pocket protector. He told me that reading Kerouac transformed his life. At first I wanted to laugh, but then I realized that the transformation was internal as opposed to external. It changed how he viewed life and everything around him. It changed how he thought about things. And he was happier for it. I don't think the movie succeeded in changing how people viewed the world or their role in it.
What was the deficiency in the movie? It was several things. But first, let me talk about what was good. Director Walter Salles really had an affinity for Kerouac and the book. It was evident from his interviews related to making the movie. Salles even went so far as to take a cross-country trip prior to filming, to see firsthand some of the grand scenery that Kerouac may have seen, and having the experience of being on the road. Salles understood the importance of the movie to many of the readers.
The style of the movie, from imagery to soundtrack, also worked. Many of the actors expressed interest in the project and participated in a Beat Boot Camp prior to filming. The problem wasn't that this was a big Hollywood production version of what many consider a sacred tome.
The first of the two main issues was that the Kerouac character was miscast. Sam Riley is no Jack Kerouac. Without being too harsh, Riley didn't have Kerouac's look or persona. Riley was much too soft and sensitive. I didn't buy that he was Kerouac. The other characters worked, even Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty (Neil Cassady).
The other issue was this- when I read the book, the main thing I got out of it was not the sex and drugs, it was the road adventure. Hey, maybe I was a little naive, and I'm not saying I didn't notice the sex in the book, but it wasn't why the book remained in my mind for 30 years. Maybe I just read it wrong. Maybe the book is about sex and drugs and the movie reflected that dutifully.
I am not one of those people who wanted the movie to fail. And I know some people who loved the movie. That said, my overall feeling is that the movie failed to do for the movie audience what the book did for generations of readers, and it is this: it failed to inspire.
So it goes,
On The Road premiered at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.
For the official website for the On The Road movie, and the movie trailer, click here.
PS - Big Sur was released in theatres in 2013.
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise
|Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty
|Kirsten Dunst as Camille
Kristen Stewart as Marylou
Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx
|Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee
The Internet Movie Database (IMDb) - a website that has all sorts of information on the movie and actors
The Long and Grinding Story of On The Road - nice article from The Independent on the development of the movie. (dated 9/12/08)
On The Road to Nowhere - early article in the Telegraph (UK) about the difficulties of getting the movie into production. (dated 4/16/2004)
On The Road Again - Article (dated 6/4/2005) that talks about how Kerouac wanted Marlon Brando to play the role of Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady)
Letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando - letter was sold at Christie's Auction house on June 30, 2005 for $33,600.
From the auction page: An important letter from Jack Kerouac to Marlon Brando suggesting to Brando that he play the role of Dean in a proposed film of Kerouac's book On The Road, the typescript letter, signed, [n.d. but circa late 1957], the letter beginning I'm praying that you'll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it, Kerouac outlines how he envisages the film could be made: Don't worry about the structure, I know to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book, one vast round trip from New York to Denver to Frisco to Mexico to New Orleans to New York again. I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak. I wanted you to play the part because Dean (as you know) is no dopey hotrodder but a real intelligent (in fact Jesuit) Irishman. You play Dean and I'll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I'll show you how Dean acts in real life...we can go visit him in Frisco, or have him come down to L.A. still a real frantic cat..., Kerouac expresses his aim in making the film All I want out of this is to able to establish myself and my Mother a trust fund for life, so I can really go around roaming around the world...to write what comes out of my head and free to feed my buddies when they're hungry..., Kerouac discusses his forthcoming novel The Subterraneans and his thoughts on American cinema: what I wanta do is re-do the theater and the cinema in America, give it a spontaneous dash, remove pre-conceptions of "situation" and let people rave on as they do in real life...The French movies of the 30's are still far superior to ours because the French really let their actors come on and the writers didn't quibble with some preconceived notion of how intelligent the movie audience is...American theater & Cinema at present is an outmoded dinosaur that ain't mutated along with the best in American Literature..., the letter ending Come on now Marlon, put up your dukes and write!,, signed in blue ink Jack Kerouac, 1p.
Interestingly, a collection of letters from Jack Kerouac to his friend Leo Garen, was sold through these rooms in 1998 [Pop Memorabilia, Christies East, 4 February, 1998] - a postcard in that lot alluded to this correspondence with Brando: We'll make millions someday, watch, with new ideas. I wrote a long letter to Brando about my ideas and no answer. Okay. We'll see...
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