Every Humanties student’s favourite pocket book On The Road finally makes it to the big screen thanks to Walter Salles and Francis Ford Coppola. It’s as faithful an adaptation as you are likely to see and thankfully the cast of youngsters doesn’t take anything away from the authentic post war setting. Much of the controversy and coverage the film saw before release was due to Kristen Stewart’s sex scenes – apparently young actresses are still not allowed to stray beyond the boundaries of their most famous characters for fear of causing chaos among the legion of fans – kudos to Stewart for choosing a role so different from the childish, embarrassing, one dimensional mess we see in that silly little vampire series.
The cast and setting are some of the film’s strongest points. While the cast is large and luminous, meaning certain players only feature in a handful of short scenes, (Adams, Dunst, and Mortensen being particularly notable) the list of names is impressive and everybody excels. The late 40s, early 50s setting is clear in every scene, from the soundtrack, to the costumes, to the cars, the cities, the little touches. We get the dual sense of vibrancy and loneliness creeping through, but this is not as great a point of focus as in the novel. Here, we get many scenes of sex, drug use, travelling, mixed with the scenes of reflection, pain, guilt, but they don’t flow together as a whole to give the constant feeling of pace, of being on a journey which Kerouac’s words so effectively delivered. Rather than being a tale of youthful exuberance, friendship, a quest for self, place, and destiny, we see instead a jumbled series of memories which are more like the snapshot of any average student’s life with the emotional impact strewn out. There is clearly an emptiness at the core of many of the characters, if not each of them, at some point but given that each is wrapped up in their own loneliness or apathy at the time when another is suffering, we don’t get a chance to relate, empathise, or care.
For all the supposed controversy, none of what you will see is shocking, unless you’ve had your eyes closed for the last 60 years. The sex scenes are not exploitative or tacky, but as each one progresses we see how the excitement is lessened until it becomes an inconsequential chore. The scenes of booze and drugs are not as powerful as the book and certainly lack the impact they would have had upon the book’s release. The theme of freedom is also lost in translation as it has become so corporate now to go ‘On The Road’ now; it’s almost the more rebellious option to get a job and settle down. For those rebels and dreamers among us born in the 80s and 90s, nothing is shocking, little is new, and all experience is second hand. The only true journey is within our own minds.
Salles does a decent job directing, even if many of the novel’s themes are diluted or miss the bullseye. Naturally it would be difficult to score full marks across the board, but he does let the novel’s dialogue and setting shine through. Sam Riley as Sal is a fine lead, although he is largely detached from proceedings as narrator, Stewart reminds us that she is a good actress if we could only shake off the sparkles, Garrett Hedlund is the star performer as Dean, and the rest of the cast fill in the blanks nicely. Fans of the book should certainly give this a try but will likely be disappointed. Console yourself with the fact that the book will always be an original, and the punch it gave on your first reading will stay with you forever.
*Originally written in 2013