On the Road is as faithful an adaptation of Kerouac’s seminal beat novel as could be expected. Considering how elusive the spirit of the work itself is in the original, it is no surprise that the focus switches somewhat to relationships of the characters, instead of the road, which Kerouac romanticized for a new generation of travelers in the sixties.
The reason for this is the format. The film begins, as does the novel, with Jack Kerouac’s avatar Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) meeting Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), around whom his life would revolve for the coming few years. While it’s true that one of the simplest readings of the novel is the course of the two men’s relationship, through fascination, camaraderie, to heartbreak, the road is more than a story device, which it unfortunately becomes, somewhat, in the film.
In terms of shortcomings in cast or crew, there are little to none to speak of. Garrett Hedlund commands the screen at all times, as one can only imagine Dean would have in real life. His performance is, of course, more crucial than perhaps any other, because even in his absence, the character of young Moriarty dominates the thoughts of those who know him. When he is not on the screen, Sal thinks or speaks about him, and that simply would not work if the actor did not bring the mad excitement to life. Dean’s women, wild young Marylou, played by Kristen Stewart, and Kirsten Dunst’s more maternal and grounded Camille, both love him and curse him simultaneously, unsurprisingly considering they often have to share him. It’s a shame Camille has so little screen time, as she is the more compelling character, but once again we must be on the road, and Marylou is the road chick, ever exploring her teenage sexuality. This mischievous side to the character is the first time I’ve seen Stewart explore that spectrum fully, and there are no complaints in that regard. Sam Riley, portraying the protagonist himself, does not get to break much new ground – while the performance is fine, I would have to say it simply isn’t very memorable. His voice-over is very good, however, his readings of Kerouac’s famous lines defining them now in my mind.
The direction of the film does shine, the handheld style being simultaneously almost unavoidable to the road movie format of the film, and feeling completely natural. Walter Salles, having previously directed The Motorcycle Diaries, is of course a natural choice to direct On the Road. One can almost wonder if the style is almost too on-the-nose, precisely what one would expect from an adaptation of On the Road in 2012… Obviously, it’s understandable, and I certainly don’t have any complaints about the direction. Kerouac’s novel, however, was so ahead of its time that it still is occasionally jarringly modern today, particularly in its style. It’s a shame that the movie does not have the same impact.
The true fault with the movie is the medium of cinema itself. Whereas the trip from Virginia to New York may occasionally be covered in a page in Kerouac’s novel, he can do so without, to use the language of cinema, cutting away from the characters for even a moment. Reading the novel, one gets the feeling that each detail of the journey, of the road, is covered, and the trips are very continuous, flowing from one event to the next completely seamlessly. It also allows the reader to feel emotional engagement for a character that spends very little time in the foreground in the novel. The film, however, due to the nature of the medium, has no natural way to speed up or down (short of slowing down or speeding up the film itself, which simply does not work in cinema except for short moments), therefore the director has to find things to skip, to cut. This cutting is the biggest difference from the novel, really, necessitating very little engagement with large portions of the film as characters float in and out, necessarily focusing on the relationships between the central characters, rather than the road itself – after all, the road is the most easily cut… Which does create a slight feeling of the movie occasionally missing the point. It isn’t that the relationships are not as important in the novel, but the characters, the entire Beat generation, didn’t go on the road to get somewhere. They were there for the road, which unfortunately is often treated very functionally in the film, shown for a shot in between the stops that contain the important plot elements.