On the Road: somewhere between euphoria and mirage
by Domenico La Porta
23/05/2012 - Brazilian director Walter Salles (Motorcycle Diaries) has made another road movie, this time adapting no less than a monument of counterculture: On the Road by Jack Kerouac, a defining literary work of the Beat Generation. This daring feat is a co-production between Brazil and France that has attracted the attention of the Cannes Film Festival, where On the Road [trailer] was recently screened in the official competition.
At the beginning of the 1950s, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) meets Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and the two men, both keen on new discoveries, become friends. The first wants to become a writer, while the second is a compulsive womaniser torn between his wife Camille (played by Kirsten Dunst) and a libertine young girl named Marylou (Kristen Stewart). Together, the trio cross the United States on a road trip rich in encounters, different partners, alcohol and drugs in a celebration of hedonism and body and spirit’s free expression.
Not adaptable. Such is the reputation of the novel on which this film is based, as it is one of these works that is so intrinsically literary that it cannot be translated to any other artistic form without serious adaptation, or even intelligent reinvention from a distance. Since 2004, Walter Salles had been thinking about the best way to do this. In the end, he has settled on a mostly faithful cinematic adaptation of the novel’s original manuscript, not the novel’s first published version. He has chosen to keep the manuscript’s literary qualities by evoking it through voices offscreen, close-ups of a typing machine being used and scribbled writing (that is sometimes legible), and novel extracts read or recited by the film’s characters who always seem to have a book like Swann’s Way to hand.
There is no outrageous treason in the film’s form and, even if the novel does lose a little of its soul in its conversion to the big screen, the director attempts to make up for this through excellent visual work, with stunning locations and a convincing reconstitution of the period. The novel’s jazzy atmosphere is, of course, relayed through an extensive soundtrack, but the latter however deprives the audience of the evocative power so central to Kerouac’s prose, as it was to the work of other great writers of the Beat Generation, such as Dean Cassady or William S. Burroughs.
In the film, the latter is magnificently played by Viggo Mortensen, as the extremely irresponsible and decadent Old Bull Lee, Burrough’s alter ego in the novel. When he is onscreen, he tends to outshine the main actors, as does Steve Buscemi when he makes an equally short appearance as a brief travel companion to the film’s travellers who, without reaching the same heights of euphoria and spleen as in the novel, however do travel an honourable distance in both directions.
(Translated from French)