WARNING: This post contains plot spoilers. If you have not seen this film, read on at your own discretion.
Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) sits at his typewriter with a blank page in the middle of the filmed adaptation of On the Road. The paper is locked in and juxtaposed with the shot of an empty road: snow-capped mountains on the side, still, desolate and open.
The revered novel by Jack Kerouac -- about the rambling personal freedom enjoyed at the beginnings of the beat generation through meditative dalliances in sex, drugs, jazz, hitchhiking and discovering that what America has to offer above all else is expanse and space -- is alive with a prose that is almost impossible to capture on film. It's the closest thing to jazz on a page that doesn't resemble notes. The book is such a cornerstone of American literature and holds such a specific language, that traditionalists would be outraged to any addition or change to the source material.
Adapting it to film, however, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera probably could have made a more complete film, if when adapting, they could've had the freedom to fill in some corners and some of those empty pages as open roads to tie the episodic nature of the book into a more visual story. There is great prose to go with taking drugs and sexual intercourse that would be less engaging to view without the prose.
For adaptation purposes Rivera stated that he used the scroll that Kerouac turned into publishers, instead of the finished published book, because the scroll had more salacious scenarios of group sex and drug abuse, before the editors trimmed or scrubbed those elements.
The adaptation is very faithful, shot very beautifully, scored appropriately, well acted, but -- understandably -- low on risk. Salles and Rivera do add an epilogue to give the film an added narrative structure. What the film On the Road ultimately is about is how and why Kerouac (Paradise) came to write On the Road.
Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) is a wayward, confident man, who inspires lust and wanderlust in the followers who wish to engage in his exploits. He has a car. He can steal another car if his breaks down. He uses Benzedrine. He sometimes looks for his father who has been missing. He has a 16-year-old wife, Marylou (Kristen Stewart, bravely ditching her Twilight purity) and a baby on the way with Camille (Kirsten Dunst, rather bland for a character described to be as soul-inspiring as Helen of Troy). Both Sal and Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge, bemused and lively) are bewitched by Dean, a man who's spent "a third of his life in the poolhall, a third in jail, and a third in the public library."
Hedlund is perfect as Dean Moriarty. His seductiveness is a smile and head of ideas that he probably only half believes, the other half just wants someone to say "yes" -- or at least not call him crazy. Hedlund has a gravelly voice, and a slow charm. He's believable as someone that would need to be the center of attention, while intermittingly deserving it and deserving to be reprimanded.
Carlo follows Dean to Denver, but is so intoxicated with a physical aching and love for his friend that he bolts almost as soon as Sal travels out to meet them. Everyone is in a competition for the attentions of Dean Moriarty. Together, Marylou, Dean and Sal return to New York, go to Louisiana, where they stay with Bull Lee (a stand-in for William S. Burroughs, played in a perfect cadence by Viggo Mortensen) who warns Sal that they are following a man in a "compulsive psychosis." From Louisiana they go to California, which is a place that signals a halt to their care-free days: Dean has a child there, Marylou won't be Dean's other and Sal is too passive to be with either of them.
The trek from Louisiana to California is the best and yet most uneven part of the film. Mortensen is great as Bull Lee, but his heroin use could have been more of a forbearer of what was to come for the beat generation. Dean, Sal and Marylou emerge physically unscathed, and although living in total contrast to the late 1940s, they never seem to encounter anyone that advises them against their actions, whereas outside of their car and circle of friends they were met with resistance. Also in this section, Elisabeth Moss has a great cameo as the young bride who financed their journey unknowingly, and who is subjected to cleaning up the floor of hallucinations of lizards that her host (Amy Adams) is having.
The section ends with a magnificently choreographed entrance to San Francisco with the loud thuds of the car wheels going over the Golden Gate Bridge, intercut with the miserable eyes of Marylou as she now knows her time with Dean is over. However, this section fails to build on the sexual tension between Dean, Sal and Marylou that would make all the scenes that follow register in a way more akin to the book.
In fact, in the film, Riley plays Sal very passively, more as an observer and someone passing the time. It makes sense by the end of the film, as the narrative shifts in aim to present why Sal wrote On the Road, the novel; as such, he observes more than he partakes. However, that decision makes Sal seem more like an opportunistic sponge, and his final interaction with Dean all the less likeable.
It's a necessary device to make the book more structured, but because it's slipped in at the end, it makes the film feel very passive, as if it's about how friends use each other, and toss each other aside. As a film, On the Road loves the source material, but Sal doesn't seem to love anyone, and if you've read On the Road, you know how much spice and vigor he filled those blank pages with. In order to achieve what Kerouac was able to convey with words, Salles and Rivera would have had to remove the story somewhat from the scroll, and invent more personal segues than they were probably allowed to do.
On the Road screens Saturday November 3 at 8 p.m. at the Grauman's Chinese Theatre, as part of the AFI Film Festival; register for tickets at AFI.com/afifest.