Within the world of literature, there are great pieces of work, and then there are entire eras whose influence and reach could never be quantified. The Romantic poets, the Harlem Renaissance or the rise of post-modernism are just a few examples of the movements that have swept literature and culture as a whole. However, one generation that may be more beloved than all of them, especially by those of the younger age brackets, is the Beat Generation.
Now, thanks to director Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries), one of the Beat’s greatest works, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, has finally hit the big screen. Long thought to be completely unfilmable due to the novel’s frenetic energy and incomprehensible melancholy and sadness, Salles’ film does ultimately fall short of the novel’s generation defining status, but holds up as one of the more intriguing and beautifully crafted literary adaptations of this still very young decade.
Featuring an absolutely killer cast, On The Road follows the story of Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), a writer who finds his life turned completely upside down by the addition of a new man, Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund). An incontrollable soul, Moriarty has about as much interest in settling down as he does finding a long lasting career, the very embodiment of his generation’s insatiable appetite for finding its own calling. Along with his on-again-off-again main squeeze Marylou (a never better Kristen Stewart), the trio set off on a journey across the country, at once getting lost in true Americana while also getting trapped in their own insatiable sense of gloom.
As mentioned above, the novel has been looked at by filmmakers for decades now, long thought to be an unfilmable masterpiece of the written word. However, under the watchful eye of director Salles, this proves to be a beautifully crafted ode to a generation who, in their free-spirited nature, are deeply sad creatures. Featuring gorgeous photography from Eric Gautier, the grit and grime of each frame is palpable, and the camera moves with as much energy and lyricism as the characters we follow and the words that come out of their mouths. Ranging from smoke filled New Orleans clubs to icy cold back roads, America is the big star of On The Road, taking the road movie genre and embedding within it an inherent poetry.
It also helps that the cast here is beyond superb. Sam Riley may be billed as the film’s lead, but while he’s great as the narrator Sal Paradise, this is Garrett Hedlund’s film. Coming into Sal’s life like a hammer to the skull, Hedlund’s Dean Moriarty may very well be one of the most surprising performances of the year. Best known for his role in Tron: Legacy, Hedlund is breathtaking here, taking the James Dean-esque character of Moriarty and imbuing within it the deepest sense of melancholy, angts, and ultimately sadness. A character simply unable to settle down his soul, Moriarty is the physical manifestation of the Beat Generation, and this is a career defining performance for Hedlund. Stewart is equally as ferocious here as Moriarty’s romantic foil Marylou, taking on similar beats as her male counter-part, but holding on major difference: she has a will and a way to get out.
Penned by Jose Rivera, On The Road‘s primary flaw comes from its structure and overall tale. Meandering throughout its narrative, the film seems to lack that indelible heart and soul that makes the novel the impossible-to-put-down novel that it has become known as. Lacking the same intensity and angst as the book as well, the film feels a tad too complacent and ultimately trite. The greatness found within the book came two-fold, both from the characters and the voice with which Kerouac wrote them in, neither of which feels fully fleshed out here, instead finding us stuck within the trappings of a rather conventional road picture.
Despite having a hackneyed screenplay, director Walter Salles and his top notch cast save On The Road from being just another stale literary adaptation. Salles is at the top of his visual game here, crafting a beautifully gritty yet oddly poetic meditation on a downhearted generation, and his cast, led by a career confirming Garrett Hedlund, make On the Road a fantastic, if flawed, adaptation of the Kerouac masterpiece.