On The Road (15)

Directed by Walter Salles
Written by Jose Rivera (screenplay), based on the novel by Jack Kerouac
Screening at FACT from 12th October 2012

Reviewed by Kev McCready

On The Road was published fifty-five years ago, and it remains a beautiful, poetic novel about the transience of human life, friendship and the birth of the beats. I’m happy to report that Walter Salles has achieved the nigh on impossible, translating what appears to have been an unfilmable novel, into a beautiful, poetic piece of cinema.

Perhaps credit should be given to Jose Rivera for a neat piece of screenwriting. He uses the creation of the novel itself as a neat framing device, as Sal Paradise (the fictional Jack Kerouac) recounts his travels across late 1940s America with Dean Moriarty. Tonally, the film is quite similar to Salles’ previous film The Motorcycle Diaries, with the journey of Paradise and Moriarty mirroring that of Che Guevera and Alberto Granado, bringing them close as brothers, but ultimately forcing them apart.

If the film has any tonal problems, it comes in a common trope of modern day screenwriting. What is suggested or hinted at in the novel, is made apparent with four in a bed, mutual masturbation, the homo-erotic love triangle between Paradise, Moriarty and the poet Carlo Marx, the other love triangle between Paradise, Moriarty and his teenage bride Mary Lou. Like BBC4’s recent adaptation of Room At The Top, it chooses to amp up the sex for a modern audience. More often than not, this is unnecessary. Such is On The Road’s popularity amongst hipsters and bohos, it stars a wish list of famous American actors (Viggo Mortensen, Amy Adams, Kirsten Dunst, Steve Buscemi, Elisabeth Moss) in uncredited cameos. It takes a moment to adjust to seeing them in a bit part.

In any case, the heavy lifting in terms of acting is done by Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund and Kirsten Stewart. he performances are all pitch perfect, Riley doing an uncanny interpretation of Kerouac. Like it’s source material, On The Road is essentially a patchwork quilt of styles and genres, and it succeeds in that, giving the film as much a bittersweet taste as the novel. The actual journeys themselves are portrayed from the windows or windscreen of a car, the light pulled away from the frame like Hopper paintings, backed with jazzy flourishes and urgent percussion. As my fiancé quite rightly pointed out, the journeys themselves become slower and more dreamlike, suggesting the distance and end of a friendship.

In conclusion, Salles has done Kerouac proud; it’s a highly successful, visually rich adaptation. Film and literature are two entirely separate genres, adapting a book as a screenplay remains a difficult trick, like pouring the Indian Ocean into a pintpot. It bodes well for the forthcoming adaptations of Cloud Atlas and Life Of Pi. Sometimes, the impossible becomes possible through great artistry.

Read Joe Coventry's review of On the Road here

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