Filming a book as iconic as On the Road is no mean task – especially after 55 years have elapsed. In the event, director Walter Salles captures some of the atmosphere but little of the spirit of Kerouac’s novel.
Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera’s take on the Beatnik bible focuses almost entirely on the tale of the magnetic, sociopathic Dean Moriarty – a man whose egotism and emptiness (and all-American good looks) cause anyone he meets to fall into an adoring orbit around him.
Salles’ Moriarty (played by Garrett Hedlund) isn’t quite such an evil sod as the character he’s based on, lacking the vicious, Begbie-like unpredictability of the novel-Moriarty. Instead Salles focuses on Moriarty’s insatiable sex-drive. The first time we see him, he’s butt-naked, in a state of priapic excitement following a noisy session (of which there are many) with his young bride Marylou. Moriarty sleeps with girls. He sleeps with boys. He sleeps with them both at the same time, if he can. I felt knackered just watching him.
Throughout swathes of the novel, Moriarty’s absence is almost a character in its own right; like a black hole that continues its destruction long after the star has imploded. But in Salles adaptation, Hedlund’s pretty-boy looks are rarely off-screen. They might have got away with it had he been played with weight or menace, but Hedlund’s Moriarty is sad, rather than despairing – his muttery bringing to mind AA Milne’s eeyore.
Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s insipid hero, gets the opposite treatment – he’s more rounded, more decisive, examining life rather than being swept through it, less of a passenger on their road trip through life.
The softening of one central character and hardening of the other makes On the Road feel more like a buddy-movie than a bleak commentary on the Beat Generation and the American psyche.
The most captivating turn comes from Kristen Stewart as Marylou. Without saying very much at all, she paints a picture of shattered innocence; beautiful, broken, high but hollowed out by Dean’s destructive presence. If this was the movie Stewart hoped to grow up in, she can count it a success.
On the Road is visually stunning, shot in grainy film stock, with endless images of the road reflected in the windshield of the stolen Hudson Moriarty races across the country. The scenes shot in Mexico are especially evocative of the pull of the open road.
But like an American super-highway, the film seems to go on forever, the conclusion always receding into the distance (and this version has been trimmed by 15 minutes). It’s a long, sprawling, messy ride, but then that’s kind of the point. The problem is, scenery apart, I left feeling it had been a wasted journey.
First published in City A.M.