By Brandon Konecny.
The adaptation of a novel to film is a difficult undertaking. Our judgment of a novel’s cinematic counterpart is, as Robert Stam perceptively points out, profoundly moralistic: we use such words as “infidelity” and “betrayal” to communicate our discontent with a filmic rendering of a text, each declaration brimming with hostility. The very word “infidelity” arouses correlative images in our minds of unfaithful partners in relationships, the betrayal of a friend’s trust, the lying of a politician to citizens. How sacred we hold these texts.
Such a reading, I admit, is not the most pragmatic way to evaluate a work, since cinema, beloved of a medium as it may be, can never quite attain the same sense of enjoyment we get from reading a novel. It is a deeply personal experience: we imagine its fictive world in a particular way, and construct the appearance of its characters and locations thusly. We make, in a sense, the entire adaptation in our minds. And any film we see, whatever its quality, is a divergence from our own conception. Thus, there is always a slight bit of disappointment with such films, but we make the appropriate allowances. Every so often, however, we encounter those adaptations, usually those of beloved classics, whose trangressions against our mental configuration of the book are a bit more pronounced than usual, and they, in turn, evoke towards them attitudes of disappointment and unfulfillment. This is the unfortunate case with Walter Salles’ adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s beloved Beat novel, On the Road.
The film follows the adventures of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), an aspiring writer who, because of his hesitation to pursue his explorative curiosities, struggles to put his thoughts on the page. His muse soon arrives in the form of a hedonistic ex-convict named Dean Moriarty (Garret Hudlund), and he leads Sal into a plentitude of bizarre travels throughout North America. Their relationship, as the film depicts quite well, is one of reciprocity: Dean gets writing lessons and, more importantly, an exhilaration from being around a milieu of intellectual-types; meanwhile, Sal receives a seemingly endless source of inspiration, his writing becoming increasingly productive in Dean’s presence.
Other fellow travelers accompany the duo’s many bohemian excursions. The most frequent of these is the overly tolerant Mary Lou (Kristen Stewart), a sixteen-year-old girl that Dean marries and soon after divorces, yet maintains a tumultuous sexual relationship with. Let it be know that, of all the performances, Stewart’s is by far the weakest; it constantly seems full of itself, putting so much emphasis in even the most mundane of actions. But perhaps this is to be expected from an actress whose career has hitherto been consumed with the always submissive, emotionally muted actions of Bella in the Twilight franchise. Camille, played by Kirstin Dunst, makes a few appearances as Dean’s second wife, who, like many of the female characters, becomes fed up with his shenanigans and throws him out. However, all of these female characters, as the film goes at lengths to show, end up only becoming tragedies of the road, subjected to well-documented misogyny the was prevalent in the Beat subculture.
It must be said that On the Road, with its stream of conscious prose and loosely connected plot, is an especially difficult novel to adapt for the big screen. But this concession does not deter my contentions with Salles’ film—they somehow managed to do a fitting adaptation of James Joyce’s Ulysses, so perhaps anything is possible. What I found most problematic about the film was its seemingly haphazard stringing together of moments of Sal’s expeditions, which leaves little room for us to gain any true attachment to his character. He is, as we view him, ostensibly tossed about the narrative, moving from one instance to the next with little connective tissue between each scene.
This is, admittedly, precisely how the novel’s plot operates, but the book does something that gives Sal’s on-again, off-again adventures some sort of cohesion—the presence of the protagonist’s interior monologue. These, written in Kerouac’s wonderful, nonstop prose, details Sal’s evaluations of these diverse situations and contextualizes them within his larger pursuit of the gems of life, as it were, his desire for some kind of truth. It is this aspect that Salles and his screenwriter, Jose Rivera, failed to effectively translate to the screen. They do make an attempt, however, via its inclusion of voiceovers and aphoristic dialogue. But these end up coming off as pompous, and intrude on the flow of the dramatic action rather than compliment it, sometimes having little to no plot justification. At times, it is as if the film screams, “Hey, I’m adapting a famous novel, and don’t you forget it!”
What this does is localize the relevancy of Kerouac’s travels across the North American continent to his own experience as well as his milieu, simply a past subcultural trend at which we are to marvel. But that, in my reading of the novel, misses its point completely. His journeys on the road, his attempts to go somewhere, anywhere that there might be a semblance of truth, are at the book’s vibrant core. In a sense, that is what his expeditions embody, the appreciation and exhilaration that life provides for its ephemeral travelers, “a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes” (James 4:14), who possess the bravery to pursue it. Thus, they have applicability to our own lives, where we are all searching for some kind of sincerity, however variegated it may be. The film, though, misses this, placing its emphasis on the completion of Sal’s novel and the two-hour spectacle of bohemian tomfoolery. And while any screenwriting manual will tell you to give your protagonist an evident goal, some sort of intentionality from scene to scene to engender conflict, by repeating the fact that he is making these travels in order to somehow inspire his book, it confines the potency of this journey to the distant Beat phenomenon, as if to put it in a glass case to be ogled at in a museum. This, if I am permitted to declare a moral judgment, a defiance of my own declaration of pragmatic evaluation, is the film’s ultimate betrayal to the novel.
This film is nevertheless a respectable effort by Walter Salles, a director whom I admire, actually. His cinema verité, semi-documentary style, which captures the continent’s vast landscapes and characters’ action in a perceptually immediate, picturesque manner, is quite beautiful. The film is a long awaited work (an adaptation of Kerouac’s spontaneous-prose odyssey, as David Sterritt writes, has been in the works since its release in 1957¹) that can finally bring peace to those desiring an adaptation of one America’s most canonical literary works. However, considering its long duration and less than interesting characters, the film, now released on DVD, would perhaps only be of interest to those who already have an emotional connection with the novel and the Beat phenomenon.
Brandon Konecny is a Film International ‘In the Field’ writer.
¹Mad to Be Saved: the Beats, the 50’s, and Film (Southern Illinois University Press, 1998)
On the Road was released on DVD in the United States on August 6th by MPI Home Video.