Most people are familiar with Jack Kerouac’s infamous Beat novel “On the Road,” a book that is considered a classic of literature, even if they’ve never read it before. It brings to mind several images, including drugs, sex, traveling, authors, and, of course, the long scrolls of paper Kerouac scrawled his novel on. While the ideas presented in the novel may have worked well in that medium, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s going to translate well to another. Now that we are faced with a film adaptation, the answer to this question becomes all too clear.
Taking place between 1947 and 1951, the film follows Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a stand-in for Kerouac himself, as he becomes acquainted with Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge). He spends most of his time traveling across the country with his friends, gaining new experiences, and all the while taking lots of notes for a book he is trying to write. There are a few more characters he meets along the way, including Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen), aka William S. Burroughs, and a few girlfriends of Dean’s, but as far as the plot goes, that’s pretty much all there is to it.
Therein lies the major problem for a film that runs over two hours. The film is nothing more than a very loose series of episodes where we follow the characters as they travel from city to city, where they do nothing but smoke, drink, and have sex. Obviously this makes for a rather uninspired film that, despite being based off of a novel considered a classic, fails to grab the viewer’s attention with its meandering storyline and characters that drift in and out of the picture.
There are some decent things to be found in “On the Road,” but you have to dig a little to find them. As the film does feature a lot of traveling, you get to see a lot of beautiful American landscapes as the characters walk/drive along country roads. If this were a travel log instead of a narrative film, I would say it does very well in this respect. However, as I already mentioned, it is its attempt at being a narrative film that ultimately hurts it.
There are also some performances that are worth noting. Riley does a fine job as the Sal/Kerouac character, but the stand out here is actually Hedlund as Dean, who ends up taking over every scene he’s in. He has a certain way of bringing authority to his character that gives him a somewhat commanding presence. It’s almost enough to make you forget that Kristen Stewart plays his first wife. Aside from these two, there are a number of brief cameos that were a pleasant surprise, including Viggo Mortensen, Steve Buscemi, and Amy Adams.
There is one thing you can do to keep yourself entertained during the film, a game that many have already done with the novel. Given that Kerouac’s publisher didn’t allow him to use the real names of the people he met, he had to invent new ones while keeping their personalities intact. Therefore, you get to play a kind of guessing game as to who the people are that Sal meets on his trips. I already mentioned that Sal is the obvious Kerouac stand-in, but I didn’t point out that his friend Carlo is actually supposed to be Allen Ginsburg, something that becomes rather obvious from his appearance. I’ve also already mentioned that he meets up with Burroughs at one point, though I’m not sure if the film really gives enough clues as to his true identity. Anyways, this at least gives you something to do while the film meanders on.
Perhaps there was just never meant to be a film adaptation of “On the Road.” It’s not really the kind of story that has a straight narrative to follow, so there’s not really anything for the audience to get attached to as the characters are going on their random journeys. If you want to experience what Kerouac did on his travels, just go back and read his novel for the more personal version of these events. I know it’s rather clichéd to say “the book is better than the movie,” but in this case, there isn’t really much else to say. 1.5/4 stars.
Expands to more theaters starting tomorrow.