It was doomed from the start. Back in 2007, Walter Salles was announced as the director for the latest attempt at adapting On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s beatnik classic. To the untrained eye, it would seem to be a match made in heaven; Salles had previously found success with another symbolic counter-culture film, The Motorcycle Diaries, a dusty, earthy road movie starring Gael Garcia Bernal as the young Che Guevara. But look beyond the surface of these similarities, and you’ll find that Salles was perhaps not quite the shrewd pick everybody thought he was.
On the Road is a novel that’s been talked about and debated for years, and rightly so. The story follows Sal Paradise (based on Kerouac himself) and Dean Moriarty (based on Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s friend), two beatnik hipsters ploughing a furious path through the American landscape, with no aim except ecstasy and oblivion. Sal, a precocious writer in New York, meets Dean through a mutual acquaintance and is excited immediately by him; a macho, unpredictable, hedonistic whirlwind of a man, and a homoerotic love affair between the two ensues. They embark on a series of raw adventures across motorways and dead end towns, while Dean’s many conquests are left at home to stew. One of Dean’s lovers, Mary Lou (played by Kristen Stewart), a 16 year old, plays quite a prominent part; it is she who seems to stoke the fires of Dean the most, and proves his most volatile union in the film.
Garrett Hedlund showed early promise in the excellent Friday Night Lights and delivers somewhat with a fiery, complex portrayal of Dean. You can sense the burning frustration and self loathing amidst the hedonism, but when you consider the towering Dean of the novel, Hedlund doesn’t quite match up. To play Dean you need an extraordinary actor; it is no surprise that Kerouac wanted Brando as his first choice. The other players fare much worse. Sam Riley, playing Sal, seems to be making a habit of desecrating sacred cultural works (the pointless Brighton Rock remake and the dour Control). Kristen Stewart should play Marylou as a firecracker; instead she comes off as a dampened sparkler.
The main problem with Salles’ adaptation of On the Road lies with its faithfulness to the overall plot rather than the feel of the novel. No one wants to watch an empty film about a couple of brattish young hipsters going on pointless road trips, which is ultimately what Salles has given us here. The novel’s beauty lied in the urgency and poetry of the prose, the hypnotic rhythm, the vivid, wildfire characters. Salles has made a handsome, worthy, but ultimately dull adaptation of a work which should fly off the screen. This is most evident in the little poetic asides every character gives. In the novel, they came across as genuinely inspired and touching. Here, with a bevy of miscast starlets, they merely come across as trite and contrived.
The irritating aspect of this adaptation is how ill-suited Salles is as a director. Though The Motorcycle Diaries had its good points, there was no indication that Salles could replicate the wild, anarchic tone of Kerouac’s novel. If I were to offer up any American director to take on the challenge, it would have been John Cassavetes. At least then there would have been an injection of unpredictability and volatile characters. As it stands we have a failed adaptation that goes to show what a singular, elusive work Kerouac scribbled down 60 odd years ago.