On the Road: Kerouac adaptation too little too late

September 15, 2012

In 1957, Jack Kerouac wrote a letter to Marlon Brando asking him to play the anti-hero from his recently released novel, On the Road.

By then, Brando was already an icon, with two Best Actor Oscars under his belt for roles in A Streetcar Named Desire and On the Waterfront. He was the epitome of the all-American outsider, full of sneering contempt for authority and a brooding intensity. He was ideal to take on the flawed but charismatic Dean Moriarty, who boozed and womanised his way across an America that feared and loathed the emergence of his Beat Generation.

That was the moment that On the Road could have become one of the all-time great movies. But Kerouac’s letter went unanswered and, partly thanks to the financial ambitions of his agent, the project collapsed. More than two decades elapsed before Francis Ford Coppola bought the movie rights in 1979. By then, the novel had become a cult classic but the backdrop of the Cold War was still searingly relevant.

Coppola has worked on the script, on and off, ever since, coming close to shooting several times (considering both Brad Pitt and Colin Farrell to play Moriarty). Now, 55 years after the book was first published, we’re about to see that silver screen adaptation. But why now? The Wall has fallen, the road movie has become a standard Hollywood trope and the Beat Generation is remembered with nostalgia, rather than fear or contempt.

In director Walter Salles’s sepia-toned adaptation, Moriarty is played by Garrett Hedlund, who looks a bit like a cast member from Glee. Marlon Brando, he ain’t. The movie will be compared to the upcoming The Great Gatsby adaptation, but F Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of dissatisfaction and the transitory nature of money resonates as strongly as ever. On the Road, on the other hand, feels tired. Fifty years ago, it would have been special. Now, it’s just another period drama.

First published in City A.M. Bespoke