It has long been supposed by many that On the Road -- Jack Kerouac's 1957 autobiographical novel that defined the Beat Generation -- could not be made into a film, or at least not one that would do it justice. How do you convert such distinct, rambling writing into a visual medium?
The answer, it turns out, is that you don't. The new film version, by director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera (who previously collaborated on The Motorcycle Diaries, about young Che Guevara), conveys the book's story and characters reasonably well, and does about as respectable a job of adaptation as anyone could have expected. (It certainly took long enough. Executive producer Francis Ford Coppola has been trying to get an "On the Road" movie made for more than 30 years.) But it doesn't capture the cadence and flow of Kerouac's writing -- doesn't really even try to -- and can only hint at the intangibles that made the novel so influential.
We begin in New York in 1947, where Kerouac's alter ego, budding young writer Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), meets a larger-than-life figure named Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) through a mutual friend. Dean is the sort of carefree, unreliable, peculiarly charismatic bohemian who attracts crowds of friends wherever he goes, and about whom legends are told. Sexually speaking, Dean is straight but adventurous, and his new wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart) is what you might politely call a libertine. Over the next few years, Dean, Marylou, Sal, and assorted other friends -- including gay Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge) and tied-down Ed Dunkel (Danny Morgan) -- embark on a series of unplanned travels back and forth across America. Marijuana, sex, and petty theft are major components of the journeys. Everything orbits around planet Dean.
Garrett Hedlund, last seen as the big lump of dullness at the center of TRON Legacy, is considerably more magnetic as Dean Moriarty, a selfish character who is so much fun to be around that his friends forget how selfish he is. Hedlund's free-wheeling performance is energetic enough that you can almost -- almost -- understand what everyone sees in Dean, but he's better at conveying Dean's pitiable condition at the end of the film.
Kerouac's avatar, Sal, is an observer in his own story, and Sam Riley (who played Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control) doesn't do much to change that. He takes a back seat not only to Dean but to Marylou, portrayed here with shocking sexual freedom by a typically unsmiling Kristen Stewart. The film also benefits from a host of vivid characters with limited screen time: Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams as a pair of Louisiana drug addicts; Kirsten Dunst as Dean's second wife; Steve Buscemi as a homosexual who propositions Dean; Terrence Howard as a jazz-loving New York friend; Elisabeth Moss as Ed Dunkel's fed-up wife.
As a work of narrative semi-fiction, Salles' version of Kerouac's book is appropriately graceful, dirty, and enigmatic. He's a sensitive director and a good storyteller. What doesn't come across, though, is why the story matters. Who are these Beatniks? To put it more bluntly, who cares? This feels like an anonymous, indistinct slice of Americana, not like an adaptation of one of the 20th century's most significant books.