On The Road and raring to go, but are literary adaptions a move in the wrong direction?


The film adaptation of On the Road, Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel, is a favourite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Directed by Walter Salles, the adaptation of the Beat Generation’s defining work is tipped to win the festival’s highest accolade, the Palme d’Or. Just as Salles’ previous film The Motorcycle Diaries followed the spiritual and physical journey of the young Che Guevara, On the Road is the semi-autobiographical story of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassidy’s roadtrip in search of meaning. Having attracted some of Hollywood’s most up-and-coming actors, Garrett Hedlund, Kristen Stewart and Britain’s Sam Riley, the film is set to make an impact. Yet receiving the Palme d’Or would mean even more for the film industry – it would represent the triumph of literary adaptations.

 Since the turn of the millennia only two Golden Palm-winning films have been ones adapted from books, and only one other had a screenplay not written by its director. The Cannes Film Festival is renowned for honouring the genius of writer-directors, yet it seems the wave of literary adaptations is forcing it to adjust. Increasingly directors are opting for popular source material, ranging from classics such as John Le Carré’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy and Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock to popular bestsellers like the Twilight Series and The Hunger Games. 2012 will even see F. Scott’s Fitzgerald’s monumental The Great Gatsby translated onto the big screen, with Leonardo diCaprio as its lead.

 Some critics are sceptical about this development and fear the art of filmmaking is going downhill. Nick James, the editor of Sight and Sound, told The Guardian he believes it is a “lesser form of cinema”, and Cannes has previously been a safeguard against this trend. It is often deemed lazy and low-risk to take source material that is already popular and will automatically attract viewers, even if it does not live up to the work’s original success. But great books certainly don’t guarantee great films – modern filmmaking invading old classics can end disastrously, as seen by the recent The Three Musketeers or the 1995 The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore. It requires a visionary director that can transform the material and yet remain true to the essence of the work. The Coen brothers’ No Country for Old Men, adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s novel of the same name, was one such success.

Kerouac’s 1951 On the Road certainly lends itself well to the screen. His non-style of writing, a blur of words he typed without paragraph or chapter breaks on a single long piece of scroll in twenty days, can make for a visual spectacle. Compared to his literary predecessors such as Steinbeck and Hemingway, Kerouac’s writing is often criticised as mere rambling, yet there is something heroic about the Beat Generation’s attempts to free themselves from the shackles of literary restraints. And today’s cinema-goers enjoy indulging in the romanticism of times gone by, Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris being a prime example. Kerouac’s rebellion against the norms of 1950s society, hanging out in Manhattan in a haze of drugs and cigarettes with literary greats like Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, will certainly attract viewers. The roadtrip that Jack Kerouac’s figure Sal Paradise, played by Sam Riley, and his friend Dean Moriarty, based on Neal Cassady and played by Garret Hedlund, embark on in search of inspiration is just the kind of escapism audiences want to experience. Whether it is enough for Cannes’ Golden Palm is yet to be seen, however the hype around On the Road certainly epitomises the recent success of literary adaptations for the big screen.

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