It has always been difficult to imagine a faithful screen version of Jack Kerouac's autobiographical and hugely influential Beat Generation novel On the Road — difficult for fans of the book and for the many filmmakers who struggled (and failed) over the last 50 years to bring it to life on screen. With its impressionistic, free-form prose and defiance of conventional narrative, On the Road seems inherently resistant to cinematic adaptation. But Kerouac himself saw no problem with the idea. As soon as he got the book published in 1957 (after years of struggle), the author famously wrote Marlon Brando a letter imploring him to buy the rights to the book and star in the film — alongside Kerouac. Brando never replied.
Francis Ford Coppola finally bought the rights to On the Road in 1979. Many directors and actors were attached to the project over the following decades, but it was only after Coppola saw Brazilian director Walter Salles' 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries — about a cross-country journey by another cultural icon, Che Guevara, adapted from his memoir — that On the Road finally found a path to the big screen. Salles' highly anticipated film may not capture all the wild glory of Kerouac's book, but it holds significant pleasures for those willing to accept it on its own terms. On the Road has always required nothing less of its many devoted readers.
Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera (who also adapted The Motorcycle Diaries) worked from the many different versions of On the Road that Kerouac wrote in the 1950s, starting with the legendary and recently published On the Road: The Original Scroll, the initial 1951 version written on a 120-foot length of tracing paper taped together by the author and inserted into his typewriter. The screenplay tames Kerouac's impossible torrent of words in part by taking liberties with the 1957 version of the book. The story remains one of endless Benzedrine-and-alcohol-fueled treks across the U.S. and finally Mexico, including a pit stop at the house of Old Bull Lee (based on William S. Burroughs) in Algiers, La. — which was locally shot. But the multiple sources help Salles and Rivera create a distinctive version of On the Road while retaining the book's essence — a search for depth and meaning through personal experience in an era of boundless postwar conformity.
French cinematographer Eric Gautier's gorgeous widescreen images of an undeveloped Western U.S. landscape also help On the Road leap from the printed page. Salles retraced the real-life journeys of Kerouac, Neal Cassady and company and shot a documentary called Searching for On the Road before tackling the narrative film, a decision that paid off in spades. Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley deliver solid turns in the Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady and Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac roles, respectively. But the women of On the Road come very close to stealing the show. Kristen Stewart and Kirsten Dunst play Moriarty/Cassady's long-suffering paramours, and their surprisingly rich performances allow the film to transcend the misogyny of which Kerouac's book has often been accused. That's an update well worth the half-century wait. — KEN KORMAN