On the wrong road

The long-awaited film version of Jack Kerouac’s seminal Beat generation novel does the book’s reputation no favours.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater

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The literary worth of On The Road, the seminal Beat generation novel by Jack Kerouac, is still a very contentious subject.

Published in 1957, the novel is largely autobiographical and chronicles the journeys of Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady (recast in the novel as Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty) as they head across America in search of kicks and spiritual enlightenment. In order to emulate the relentless flow of experience that the road provides, he wrote the three-hundred-odd page work in a three-week, coffee-fuelled frenzy onto a long scroll of paper, enabling him to continue his train of thought without having to reload his typewriter.

Rubbing against the grain of an establishment that considered the creation of literature as a scholarly and methodical process, the novel was dismissed and derided, most famously by Truman Capote, who deemed Kerouac’s ‘spontaneous prose’ style typing rather than writing. Some champions of On The Road see this as an ongoing prejudice that has stopped the novel being absorbed fully into the American literary canon, yet many more agree that the problem lies with the decadent hipsterism that continues to surround the book.

Kerouac envisioned a life spent in tweeds and speaking at universities when he set out on his writing career, but instead he became the world’s first literary rock star, in the most modern sense of the phrase. On The Road was embraced primarily by the emerging counter-culture, whose adherents tended to focus more on the non-conformist bohemianism which bursts from its pages rather than stopping to explore its nuances. As such, it has gone down in history as an overblown, boy’s own trashy novel and, to this day, it remains a favourite amongst itchy-footed teenage boys, dreaming of having the same kinds of wild experiences Kerouac wrote about.

When it came to selling the rights for a film adaptation, Kerouac was always very keen and hoped it would aid the novel’s legacy. In 1979, the rights were bought by Francis Ford Coppola but the film which has finally materialised only does the work a huge disservice, unfortunately. Helmed by Walter Salles, with Coppola serving as executive producer, it is a retelling which, despite some fine performances, sustains itself solely on the kind of obnoxious Beat kitsch that has dogged the novel since its publication.

The screenplay, not quite content with the source material, incorporates extra anecdotes gathered from the Beat cohorts and their later writings. As such, it strikes a curious balance between fact and fiction, which only promotes the idea that the novel is only interesting for the unique bohemian circle which created it. Furthermore, this gives the film-makers the scope to pick and choose from its various sources in order to construct the most agreeable bohemian picture. The homosexual relationship between Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and Carlo Marx (the stand-in for the poet Allen Ginsberg, played by Tom Sturridge) is accentuated where in the novel it was only hinted at.

Meanwhile, the novel’s misogynistic and spiritualist elements are dramatically underplayed. In the novel, Dean is by all accounts an unashamed misogynist, whose complete self-regard is seen by Sal as part and parcel of his holy quest for new experience. Salles, however, recasts him as a more grounded, damaged and self-loathing soul in an attempt to try and justify his less palatable traits.

The film itself isn’t entirely without merit. It still has a certain youthful energy and is graced by some truly compelling performances. Sam Riley has a certain naive charm in the role of Sal, while the swaggering, fast-talking Garrett Hedlund is an arresting screen presence. But the fact remains that the film bears almost no resemblance to the novel it’s supposed to be adapting. This would be forgivable if Salles’ appropriation was at least interesting, but what we end up with is something that has all the intrigue of hearing about someone’s gap year.

If On The Road is ever going to be taken seriously as a work of art it needs to be accepted on its own terms and appreciated in spite of its rough edges and unpopular ideas. Its misogyny, spiritualism and frenzied energy at the very least made On The Road distinctive. This film, on the other hand, is sorrowfully pedestrian.

Tom Slater is spiked’s film reviewer. Visit his blog here.

See the trailer for On the Road here:

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