When a novel is labelled “unfilmable” there tend to be two basic reasons it is considered so, the first (e.g. Lolita, A Clockwork Orange) because of their subject-matter, and the second (e.g. Ulysses, The Sound & the Fury) because their structure means their meaning and relevance are inseparable from the form of the novel, and On the Road is in this category.
Directed by Walter Salles from the sprawling beat-classic by Jack Kerouac, On The Road does what a number of underwhelming adaptations have done before it, it completely ignores what makes the novel great, instead doing little more than filming the events of the story.
Kerouac’s novel is about the road-trips and parties of a number of poets and writers across the Post-war United States, which placed a great emphasis and importance on the people Kerouac (or Sal Paradise, his stand-in in the novel) met on his travels and the quirks and absurdities of these people in which he believed he could discover the meaning of life. This exploration was personified in Dean Moriarty, a kinetic drifter who shared Sal’s hunger for life. The film completely ignores all the characters Kerouac found so important.
It’s representation of Dean (Garrett Hedlund) does not attempt to see what Sal saw in him. Instead he is treated as a sad and lonely vagrant whose life consists of deferred moments of misery. The film languishes in misery. In an attempt to seem liberal and modern there is a heavy focus on homosexuality and the issues of the women left behind by these wild travellers. There’s no doubt that these men treated their women horrendously, but here they are not so much characters as a selection of scenes of sex, crying and shouting spliced together, so it couldn’t be said to succeed in its noble plight.
Salles seems to believe that taking a contrary view to everything Kerouac’s novel was about is the same as having insight. The legend behind the novel is that it was written on one long unedited piece of paper in a burst of inspiration, whereas the film has about 12 cuts in the first 10 seconds. What Kerouac’s On the Road did was give people the feeling that there was a world outside worth seeing, that you had to get up and go out to see it, this film does little more than make you want to stand up and walk out. In cinemas 12 October 2012. Watch the trailer now on MEG.ie.