‘Unfilmable’: On the Road

Picture credit: Wikipedia

Walter Salles’ version of On the Road was never going to reflect the Beat classic with the exactness demanded of most adaptations. It would have been futile to attempt a precise translation of Kerouac’s enthused rush of words- ‘Wild form’ as he named it- onto the silver screen; the end product would have been unrecognisable. In the book, Sal Paradise is absorbed in madness and in learning of madness, his every word punched with such immediacy as to defy the laws of past tense narration. The result is a novel of nuances, of suggested emotion buried beneath exhilaration; fleeting feeling flashing over the faces of its characters. Subtleties like this cannot be replicated in film. The characters would become cold and superficial, a concept inconsistent with their roles as ‘New York intellectuals’, thinkers and writers. So, by augmenting the implied emotions of On the Road, by allowing Carlo Marx to grieve and Marylou to cry, and by treating these moments with such tender poignancy, Salles’ adaptation is as loyal to the novel as possible for a successful film.

‘Wild form’s the only form holds what I have to say- my mind is exploding to say something about every image and every memory… I have an irrational lust to set down everything I know.’ Jack Kerouac

In saying this, I am disappointed that the novel’s most affecting portrayal of Dean’s vulnerability, whereby he comes under attack from Camille’s friends for lacking responsibility, wasn’t included in the screenplay. To see him standing with his bandaged thumb aloft, taking the torrent of abuse in pathetic silence, could have generated  pathos far beyond that which Salles actually achieved. Although we felt sorry for Dean throughout the film, we weren’t witness to his gradual degeneration. In the book, his confused lust for life culminated at this point, the point of his ‘final development.’ And the effect was harrowing.

‘where once Dean would have talked his way out, he now fell silent himself, but standing in front of everybody, ragged and broken and idiotic…’ On the Road

Not only does the film expand upon characters’ emotions, it also contains many scenes which I cannot recall having read. Seemingly, it takes some of its content from Kerouac’s original draft of On the Road: Carlo Marx’s romantic love for Dean comprises a large theme within the film yet, unless aware  of Ginsberg’s influence on the former, it is not clear within the finished novel. The inclusion of Marx’s unrequited affection allows the audience to greater appreciate Dean’s immense appeal. As Sal says, he is ‘Beatific.’ And Kerouac would be sure to approve: when his agent demanded this omission, he retorted that she wanted ‘a road with all the curves out.’

On the Road Manuscript, #1

On the Road Manuscript, #1 (Photo credit: Thomas Hawk)

‘Allen was queer in those days… Neal saw this and… wanting dearly to learn how to write petry like Allen, the first thing you know he was attacking Allen with a great amorous soul… I was in the same room. I heard them across the darkness…’ On the Road, original draft

The cast cannot be faulted. Most notable, was Garrett Hedlund’s performance: he captures not only the brilliant insanity for which Dean is renowned, but also the character’s battle to suppress the insecurities created by his father’s absence. Moreover, he succeeds in crafting an ineptness so innocent that the audience is enamoured, rather than exasperated.

Picture credit: The Week

Sam Riley, as Sal Paradise, is insignificant. Yet this is not to diminish his his skill as an actor- it merely reflects the function of his character. As the narrator, Sal Paradise is both nowhere and everywhere. He is the medium through which understand Dean; his mind is a filter which taints all. Yet he is not the protagonist. Thus the film cannot help but reduce his role to one of little interest for the audience; he is on the sidelines, watching, like us.

Yet from the moment the cast was announced, the attention has been weighted heavily on Kristen Stewart; On the Road is her big departure from the squealing, adolescent audience of Twilight. And, though her association with Bella Swan will never dissipate- like the cast of Harry Potter, she is tarnished for life- her portrayal of Marylou is so convincing that for two hours, she experiences brief release from the clutches of eternal damnation.

It is nearly 60 years since On the Road was first published. Nevertheless, Salles’ adaptation works. Being alive and wanting to enjoy it is a timeless concept, yet it is one which is rarely championed in today’s society. Which is why everyone should see this film.