The 300-some-page Benzedrine-induced account of Columbia College dropout Jack Kerouac’s pseudonym, Sal Paradise, was typed continuously for three weeks, so feverishly created that Kerouac had to tape sheets of paper into footlong scrolls in order to avoid resting at page breaks. The chronicle of an aspiring writer’s series of road trips across the United States in search of drugs, sex, jazz, and a kind of spiritual enlightenment, “On the Road” helped redefine expectations for the well-wrought American novel.
Walter Salles’ screen adaptation of the novel, though, does not revolutionize genre expectations for film, and it does not capture Kerouac’s notoriously wild, jazz-like prose. But those are epically high expectations for a two-hour film—expectations some critics seem keen on holding the adaptation to. Salles’ “On the Road” has a vastly different effect than Kerouac’s novel, but the isolation, aimlessness, and sexuality that the film chooses to focus on are absolutely evident in the novel, though perhaps transmuted differently. Adaptation from page to screen is a director’s personal interpretation—not just an investigation to what the author would have wanted—and Salles has a totally legitimate, albeit incomplete, interpretation of “On the Road.”
The explicit and relentless sexuality of the film is what will most distress theaters full of 60-year-old ex-angelheaded hipsters, and please the 16-year-old adolescents flocking to see Kristen Stewart’s topless introduction. The three leads, Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), his vagabond friend, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), and Dean’s girlfriend, Marylou (Stewart), each have magnetism and intensity on screen, particularly Hedlund, whose Moriarty evokes a James Dean polished for modern audiences. Riley does not quite capture the charisma and allure of Kerouac, but he does capture the core of the character, which hinges on a muse-like fascination with Moriarty. The relationship between the two is the most intriguing part of the movie, and the viewer has the privilege of experiencing Sal and Dean’s relationship in all its disillusionment, betrayal, and ecstasy.
The film’s supporting cast is spectacular, chock-full of the best actors in Hollywood all taking character roles. Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee is perfect in his grizzly, strung-out-on-heroin brand of isolation, as is his wife (Amy Adams), whose moment is brief but ridiculous as she sweeps lizards out of a tree in the backyard. Steve Buscemi has an expectedly creepy cameo as a closeted father who pays Dean $20 for an hour or two in the other room.
What is best about the film, though, is its honesty about the brutality of the road. Although the road is Kerouac’s source of inspiration, the film does not ignore its bleak reality—silence juxtaposes jazz, while months of loneliness juxtapose sex. Kerouac travels the road as Sal Paradise, the drifter, until he decides to become Jack Kerouac, the writer. But Dean Moriarty, one who couldn’t stop burning like a fabulous roman candle, is left bleary-eyed and broke on the side of the road in Times Square.