On the Road was writer Jack Kerouac’s autobiographical novel of his travels along the highways of America, the exuberance of discovery of the wide range of American lifestyles as well as his seeking for greater freedom and freedoms. It was the novel of what was called The Beat Generation, a reflection of life between 1947 and 1951 which was to influence young Americans, especially, over the next decade. A number of film-makers have wanted to transfer it to the screen but failed. Now, using a screenplay by Jorge Rivera, Brazilian director, Walter Salles (best known for his Central Station and The Motorcycle Diaries) has filmed it.
British Sam Riley is Sal Paradise, the Kerouac character, with writing ambitions who is introduced to a literary group which includes Carlo (the novel’s equivalent of poet Allen Ginsburg) who then introduce him to the confident and charismatic Dean Moriarty (the equivalent of Neal Cassady). Sal and Dean immediately click. Sal is in admiration of Dean’s energy and freedom despite his car-stealing life and prison, Dean admiring the more dependable and creative Sal. There is also Dean’s young ex-wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and his new wife and baby, Camille (Kirsten Dunst).
Sal has already been on the road after his father’s funeral and travelled across the states, joining in casual work including cotton-picking in California. Sal then travels with Dean and Marylou, sharing their escapades, from sex and drugs and shoplifting to encounters like that with Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen) and his wife Jane (Amy Adams) and their alternate lifestyle in Louisiana.
All the time, Sal is taking notes, writing.
On another trip to Mexico, Sal becomes very sick and is finally abandoned there by Dean. Which means that Sal goes back to his more ordinary life in New York to write his book – yet still pondering on the influence of Dean. Dean has become inspiration – and, at one stage, is referred to as holy, almost sanctifying his freedoms quest.
Audiences who have read Kerouac and been moved and inspired by his work will have a judgment on whether the film dramatises the book well or adequately, capturing the depths of its themes. Audiences who have not read the book or who do not know the Beat Generation may be fascinated by this road movie of rebellion against the status quo. Other audiences may wonder about what freedoms the film is really exploring and expounding. Is it transcending one’s limitations, developing oneself – and in relationships with others? Or is it, as seems so often during the film as we see, over and over, sexual promiscuity, indulgence in drugs, personal betrayals and refusal to take responsibility for behaviour (which is what Old Bull Lee seems to be saying about Dean), freedom merely as the capacity for moving beyond any felt restraints just for oneself. (And that leads to the temptation of thinking that a lot of what we are seeing is just the Emperor’s New Clothes.)
At well over two hours, with a lot of repetition, and despite Garrett Hedlund’s arresting performance, what are we left with?
(Audiences interested in these characters should see Heart Beat with Nick Nolte as Neal Cassady and Sissy Spacek as his wife; John Heard is Kerouac and Ray Sharkey is called Ira but is based on Allen Ginsberg. There is also the 2011 film about Ginsberg’s poem, Howl, with James Franco. Ginsberg is to be portrayed by Daniel Radcliffe in the forthcoming, Kill Your Darlings, with Jack Huston as Jack Kerouac.)