05/26/2012 06:00 pm ET Updated Jul 26, 2012

Kerouac in Cannes: A Road Not Taken

I am pleased that the reports from Cannes about the On the Road, Walter Salles' film are mainly favorable, although I have taken note that some say there is no inner world for the characters, that the film has no discernable plot, that it is overlong. I have been following this progress for at least a decade. When I interviewed Francis Ford Coppola in 2007 about his film, Youth Without Youth, I inquired as to its status; at that stage, several writers had attempted a screenplay including one by Russell Banks where he, Russell Banks, runs into Jack Kerouac in a bar in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and they spend a drunken week together. Francis looked me in the eye and asked, "Have you read the book? It is impossible to script." There were titters at the table of critics who were aware that I am a noted Kerouac scholar.

Coppola had once thought he would make the film in black and white, inspired by Robert Frank's Pull My Daisy (1959). Kerouac wrote the poetic narration. That might have been a way to meet the ultimate challenge, how to make a film of a book that is about language. Many say that cannot be done. Wearing the hat of a film critic, I know that many good films, at least interesting films, come out of an appreciation of a literary text.

Perhaps the best analogy is David Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, which is not the Naked Lunch its author William Burroughs assembled in a cheap Tangier hotel near the port with the help of his beat buddies, Kerouac included. All of this activity, with Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Peter Orlovsky on the scene, including some surreal talking typewriters all became part of Cronenberg's vision, but when asked why his Naked Lunch was not Naked Lunch, he double talked, "I wanted to reach behind the book to find the writer writing the book, or how such a book could be written. To make the real Naked Lunch, would cost a gazillion dollars and it would be banned in every country of the world." In other words, the daring director copped out of making Naked Lunch, a point that was not missed by William Burroughs at its 1991 release. Nevertheless, the Naked Lunch he made with its talking asshole and mugwumps, breast baring Dr. Benway, and the double killing of Joan, is fascinating.

When Walter Salles was chosen for the next round of, eh, Road tests, I could feel the Hollywood wheels in motion, turning to the buddy movie genre already a success in Motorcycle Diaries. Two guys take the road. A no brainer! Walter Salles is of course a good filmmaker, noted most in his debut Central Station and to his credit he did due diligence interviewing the surviving members of the Beat Generation such as it was after the death of Corso, the last Beat. He got Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Carolyn Cassady, Anne Waldman, come to think of it, many women which may explain why so much of Jose Rivera's script may be so girl oriented. In Kerouac's text, the women are leitmotifs. Some wags have suggested the filmmakers were capitalizing on the casting of Kristen Stewart in the role of Marylou, a most popular, bankable star after the Twilight movies. Salles continued his research and preparation bringing onto the set these key women to motivate and educate the actors. Boot camp, he called it. When I met Kirsten Dunst at a luncheon in New York in 2010 for her film All Good Things, she told me she regretted leaving the set because Carolyn Cassady was coming to hang out with the players. She did not want to miss time with an authentic beat legend, author of the memoir Heartbeat focused on her ménage a trois in San Francisco with her husband Neal and Jack. Despite the fine acting efforts of Sissy Spacek, John Heard, and Nick Nolte, the 1980 film was deemed so bad Allen Ginsberg refused to allow his name to be used for the character based on him. Burroughs, infatuated with Nolte, happily visited and endorsed the film.

In time I would learn of other actors cast for On the Road: Amy Adams as Joan Vollmer, Steve Buscemi himself at work on a film of Burroughs' Queer plays a character invented for the film, a homosexual who hits on Neal. Walter Salles was coy, not inviting some beat insiders to the set for the actors' enlightenment saying he did not want his film to be a documentary. In short, I expect that Walter Salles did as fine a job as could be done with an iconic novel that would appear to be so film friendly, but had so far eluded filming for decades. As to me, the film enthusiast is not at war with the Kerouac scholar. No fears: I am ready to like this film, really like it, provided I do not have to mistake it for On the Road.

A version of this post also appears on Gossip Central.