The announcement that Walter Salles was adpating Kerouac’s 1957 beat novel On the Road was met with some scepticism due to the rambling quality of the novel’s narrative. The film-makers were challenged not to create a truly faithful translation, but to capture the frenzied feeling of the source material.
Some of techniques employed to this end are perhaps a little obvious; handheld cameras and extensive use of sound effects create claustrophobia rather than euphoria as Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) first appear. This improves as the film continues, and the later use of jump cuts effectively portray the fast pace of the characters’ lives and suggest their drug-addled perceptions.
Screenwriter Jose Rivera makes no attempt to move the story beyond the novel’s sporadic focus on Dean Moriarty. Intimate fans of the book will be pleased by the inclusion of familiar digressions, but other viewers may be less than impressed by the lack of structure. For example, the story of Sal’s short-lived relationship with Terry is not omitted although it defers focus from Dean. This allows for the film’s most impressive sets; bedraggled canvas tents flutter in the wind, withstanding the weather just as Sal (temporarily) withstands his work as a cotton picker. Throughout, panoramic location shots involve the audience in Sal, Dean and Marylou’s experiences; as Sal remarks in the novel, we are ‘reading the American landscape’.
Salles’ film also places emphasis on Sal as a writer. This is achieved through a sporadic voiceover using text taken from the novel. However, more thoughtful is the tying of the film to the autobiographical roots of Kerouac’s text. The final act sees an energised Sal tape several sheets of paper together and load them into his typewriter, just as Kerouac is rumoured to have done when writing On the Road. It is here that the frantic beat lifestyle is best expressed.
Salles’ attempt to maintain this urgency and pace results in some tantalisingly brief performances; skilled and respected actors such as Steve Buscemi and Amy Adams are reduced to little more than cameos.
The unlikely casting of Kristen Stewart as 16 year old Marylou is more fruitful. Stewart is able to modify her voice in order to play a character much younger than her, and crafts a multi-faceted performance. She is at once childlike and adventurous, yet succeeds in expressing yearning for a life of greater stability than that which she finds on the road. Sam Riley’s performance is characteristically understated, although he is more likeable here than as the psychotic Pinkie in 2010’s Brighton Rock. Garrett Hedlund’s performance as Dean provides the bedrock; his exuberance engages the audience just as Dean’s affects his fellow travellers. They are fascinated by his Peter Pan-like nature; however, the boy who will not grow up ultimately burns out instead.The presentation of Carlo’s feeling for Dean is over-exaggerated; his attraction is clearly stated rather than subtly suggested. This gesturing towards an exploration of homosexuality becomes the weakest element of the film. Sturridge’s emotive performance is sympathetic, but his storyline is under-developed compared to the film’s heterosexual relationships.
Salles’ On the Road also lacks Sal’s first person perspective, meaning the overarching attitude is that of the film-makers; the sympathetic view of Dean’s wife Camille (Kirsten Dunst) and baby suggests a desire to portray him as cruel. However, Salles also leaves room for a more sympathetic interpretation with the heart-rending image of the dirty, downtrodden Dean, aptly juxtaposed with a matured and suited Sal as the film ends.
This adaptation retains Kerouac’s power to infect youngsters with a desire to travel, and even make them nostalgic for a time they never even knew.