It’s a sunny day and a group of men are laughing on the back of a truck as it rockets past what looks like endless dust and barren land. They pass a bottle around and sing about jailbait sweethearts; one man stands and attempts to pee over the side of the moving vehicle. It winds and bumps and he falls, mid-stream. It’s messy. In the midst of it sits Sal (Sam Riley), weather beaten and dirty as the rest of his companions, and being mocked about the state of his shoes.
On the Road is a book held close to many hearts both literally* and figuratively. It’s an amalgamation of escapism, harsh reality, obsession, manipulation, lust, rule-breaking, freedom, apathy, empathy and selfishness. It taps into a longing we have for a life that is free without losing grip on the pitfalls that would accompany it. Relationships decay, character flaws are not shied away from, and the protagonist is not anyone extraordinary. It speaks to us of a reckless abandon that few obtain and most dream about, or only achieve a few times in their lives. It’s life, meaning and looking for a place to belong.
Adapting Jack Kerouac’s most famous novel for the big screen is something people have been attempting to do since 1957, when Kerouac himself penned a letter to Marlon Brando suggesting that they star alongside each other, with Brando as Dean and himself as Sal. He received no response. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights and tried, three times unsuccessfully until he found Brazilian director Walter Salles.
Translating the book into film is a tall order. People click in to different parts, and every passage that didn’t make the cut probably spells another fan lost. The film is most definitely not the book on screen; characters are moved around and adjusted, major scenes are omitted entirely, and many sub-plots are tweaked – however this is all done while keeping with the feel of the original work. It’s better this way.
Garrett Hedlund is a convincing Dean Moriarty. He is charismatic with an insecure edge to his confidence, and it is easy to believe in the fixation that the people around him all seem to share, however he is not identical to the Dean who exists on ink and paper. He is still ‘beat and life personified’, and the womaniser on a slow downward spiral who deep down just wants to find his father, however his quest to be at least perceived as an intellectual is muted almost to non existence. The dynamic between Dean and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) remains unchanged, though more is spelt out in the film than in the novel. Because why try and convey something through acting and clever dialogue when you can just say it outright.
So, in the spirit of the film, let’s spell it out. They have sex. As does everyone else. All. The. Time. The book is by no means puritanical. Sex happens. Regularly. It just seems to happen in the movie more. A lot more. Kristen Stewart, who was actually very good in the role of Marylou, is first introduced in Dean’s bed. From there she goes from sexual act to sexual act, whether it be an attempted threesome or a who-cares-if-anyone-sees quickie. By doling out hand jobs left right and centre (that being the description of Dean, Sal and her positions in the front seat of the car as she vigorously works her way towards carpal tunnel syndrome for the umpteenth time), Marylou puts extra ‘beat’ into beat culture.
Also, I’m not entirely certain it was crucial to see Viggo Mortensen’s scrotum. Oh well.
The film is solid. It captures the spirit of the novel in the most part – particularly the bit where you think it has finished, then it keeps going. Multiple times. Like all book to film adaptations, much loved things are cut, and it is sad to not see many of the more transient and quirky characters make an appearance. But, if you can cut Tom Bombadil out of Lord of the Rings, then we can (sadly) give Remi a miss.
So, while yes, President Truman does say ‘we must cut down on the cost of living’, don’t apply this mantra when debating whether or not to stretch your budget to include a film this week. That film doesn’t have to be On the Road, but if it is, chances are high that you won’t walk out cursing the day Coppola, Salles and Kerouac were born.
*Seriously. The amount of copies that must exist in Australia alone would probably be enough to construct a ten storey On the Road Appreciation Society headquarters from, complete with furniture and Jack Kerouac statue made of paper mache.