Jack Kerouac’s work has always had a rough trip through the Hollywood machine. Beginning with 1960’s adaptation-in-name-only The Subterraneans, many filmmakers have attempted to bring Kerouac’s work to the screen, but few have captured the frantic, meandering spirit that solidified his “voice of a generation” legacy.
The latest director to try his hand at bringing Kerouac’s vision of America to the screen is Walter Salles, whose award-winning 2004 Ché Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries made him an inspired choice for bringing Kerouac’s cross-country American odyssey On the Road to the screen.
The film casts British actor Sam Riley as Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s literary alter-ego in the story) and TRON: Legacy star Garrett Hedlund as Sal’s road-trip companion and muse, Dean Moriarty (Neal Cassady’s alto-ego). The pair are joined on a wild trek across late-1940s America by Twilight alum Kristen Stewart as Dean’s tagalong teenage lover, Marylou, as well as a long list of familiar faces portraying various Beat Generation figures—most notably Viggo Mortensen as Bull Lee (William S. Burroughs) and Kirsten Dunst as Camille (Carolyn Cassady).
Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera showed a remarkable ability to capture the highs, lows, and quiet lulls of the road-trip experience in The Motorcycle Diaries, and with On the Road the duo makes it clear that this was more than just a fortunate pairing of subject matter and filmmakers. There’s a genuine sense of distance-crossing in On the Road that brings the audience along for the ride instead of making them secondhand participants, and the pair carry over the feeling of raw travel that was such an important part of Kerouac’s story.
For their parts, Riley and Hedlund manage to sift through the mess of characterizations Kerouac and Cassady have been saddled with over the years—whether in Kerouac’s accounts or those of his friends, family, and historians—and find the versions of the characters that serve the story best. Hedlund in particular finds the sweet spot in Dean Moriarty (and Neal Cassady) that straddles the line between charismatic companion and selfish jerk, allowing the audience to empathize with Sal’s adoration—and later, frustration—over the course of their time together.
Stewart’s role in the film is mercifully brief and makes it clear that her involvement had more to do with marketing than any other factor. Still, it’s difficult not to want more of Mortensen as the eccentric Bull Lee, and Amy Adams’ time as Jane (Burroughs’ wife, Joan Vollmer) is over far too soon.
Salles and Rivera weave together the various legs of Sal Paradise’s journey by peppering the film with narration from the novel and jazz tracks, and it’s a decision that makes a weird kind of sense for the story, firmly entrenching it in the period—or Kerouac’s vision of it, in this case. Relative to the films we’ve been given thus far, Salles makes a strong case for On the Road as one of the best adaptations of Kerouac’s work to date, managing to tell a story that’s both faithful to the source material and well aware of the elements that make the story timeless.