It has been years since I read the Jack Kerouac novel, and I remember liking it, being pulled along by the novel’s vivid energy and its exploration of relationships between young, naïve characters that could instantly be related to. Being only twelve, the novel might be one of a series that I could class as a literary ‘rite of passage’ for me; a first indirect encounter after the fantasticality of children’s literature with a very real world of sex, drugs, passionate music and carefree people. All of this is related beautifully by Walter Salles in his new adaptation, but remaining faithful to the energetic fever of the novel is not all this film has going for it.
Maybe it was because I too was young when I read it that I didn’t fully pick up on how truly sad Kerouac’s story is. It is a novel I must return to, but in the meantime, I can say with confidence just how insightfully Salles has tapped into the tragedy of his characters’ restless and unfulfilled lives. Brilliantly realised by a formidable ensemble cast, including Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund (as the compulsive Dean Moriarty), Kristen Stewart (who I believe to be very underrated), and Kirsten Dunst (in a very powerful performance as Dean’s second wife) – this film contains some incredible pieces of acting, especially in the female roles (which Salles has thankfully lent more weight to in this adaptation).
One thing I will say is that the narration can sometimes be a little intrusive, particularly in the final scenes. The ending of the novel, which I vividly remember, works perfectly, but in weaving Kerouac’s words into the film at the end as a final piece of narration actually seems like an abrupt and tonal dysfunction. There are other points in the film (such as during the relationship Sal Paradise – played by Riley – has with a young woman called Terry while working with her family in the fields in Sabinal) where the narration threatens to dampen the emotional impact these sections should have.
But this is a minor quibble. I think it’s a shame that On The Road has received such mixed reviews, when even on its own merits (and not solely on the strength of it being a good adaptation), it is an impressive piece of filmmaking. It is beautifully shot, extremely well acted and deeply moving. The film keeps the intensely autobiographical feel of the novel, and it works all the better for that. Some have described the characters as ‘fatuous’, ‘pretentious’ and ‘self-pitying’ – forgetting that the human capacity for these characteristics, especially when young and naïve – is great. This stands as a very mature and human film in its own right, and I came away from the cinema after the final credits feeling pensive and incredibly moved.
Review by LiveWire Young Film Critic, James Martin (October ’12)