Few books have meant as much to me as “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac’s sensational novel about his friendships and adventures in late 1940s America. I was 19 when I read it the first time, and it deeply resonated with me as it has for so many other readers over the past half century since it was published. As with any iconic and beloved book, successfully adapting it to a movie was a tall order.
Director Walter Salles (“The Motorcycle Diaries”) and screenwriter Jose Rivera have partially succeeded in that endeavor. The effort that went into bringing the story to the screen was clearly a labor of love, and there’s much here to be admired.
The 1940s created by Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier is magnificent. New York, Denver, San Francisco, and the road and the characters in between feel very authentic. The story also stays very true to the book, and much of the voiceover is taken directly from its pages. One thing that was slightly off-putting at first was that the language was from Kerouac’s original draft of the novel (“On the Road: The Original Scroll,” released in 2007 on the 50th anniversary of the book’s publication), rather than the better-known language from the 1957 version. In most cases it’s just a slightly more stripped-down version of the prose.
What made the book so unforgettable was the character of Dean Moriarty (who was Neal Cassidy in real life), and the relationship between Dean and the protagonist Sal Paradise (the pseudonym for Kerouac himself). A singular, complex character, Cassidy was the larger-than-life personality that inspired much of the literature of the Beat Generation. In addition to being central to “On the Road,” he was a muse to “Howl” author Allen Ginsburg (portrayed in the book and movie as Carlo Marx).
Dean Moriarty was Sal’s best friend and hero. Sal was deeply enamored with him – and herein lies the main flaw of the movie. Dean Moriarty needed to be portrayed by someone with real star power and movie-star charisma. Unfortunately, Garrett Hedlund (“Tron: Legacy” and “Friday Night Lights”) wasn’t up to the task. He makes a good effort, but he simply lacks the charisma to bring the character to life. What was needed was someone to transcend the character the way Brad Pitt did with Tyler Durden in “Fight Club.” To steal a line from Austin Powers, “women wanted him, and men wanted to be him.” To make it work on screen, Dean Moriarty had to be played by that kind of actor.
Sadly, Hedlund is no 29-year-old Brad Pitt, and there was very little chemistry between him and Sal or the many women in his life (notably Kristen Stewart as Marylou and Kirsten Dunst as Camille).
On a happier note, Stewart and Dunst, as well as most all the rest of the cast, fare better than Hedlund. Stewart, whose pouty, bored look and serial cinematic offenses in the “Twilight” movies have made her an easy target for ridicule, is an underrated actress. She was very good in “Adventureland” and “Into the Wild,” and she brings a sultry, sexy swagger to Marylou, Moriarty’s 16-year-old wife.
Somewhat surprisingly, British actor Sam Riley is great as Sal Paradise. With a square jaw, stubble on his chin and the shaggy hair of the young Kerouac, not only is his look just right, he channels the gestalt of the introspective beatnik author really well.
Tom Sturridge, also a British actor, is pretty good as Carlo Marx, and Viggo Mortensen is terrific as Old Bull Lee (who in real life was William S. Burroughs, author of “Naked Lunch.”)
All in all, “On the Road” looks beautiful and is a faithful adaptation of the novel, but it’s ultimately disappointing they couldn’t have found a more compelling actor to play the story’s hero.
So, in America, when the sun goes down and I think about what kind of movie “On the Road” could have been, like Jack Kerouac I think of Old Dean Moriarty, the father they never found, but mostly I think of Dean Moriarty, I think of Dean Moriarty.
“On the Road” is rated R for sexual content, drug use and language.