“I’m prayIng that you buy On the Road and make a movie of it,” implored Jack Kerouac in a letter to Marlon Brando in 1957. The actor never responded, and it’s been more than half a century since, but the beat author’s seminal meditation on the youthful hunger for sex, kicks, and enlightenment has finally made it to the big screen.
Kerouac infamously wrote On the Road—his stream of consciousness tale about the search for identity as played out by Kerouac and co-conspirator Neal Cassady’s alter egos Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty— on a single, 120-foot scroll of taped-together tracing paper in just three weeks. But it’s taken more than 30 years since Francis Ford Coppola first bought the film rights to the novel in 1979 for a cinematic adaptation to be brought to life, courtesy of Puerto Rican screenwriter José Rivera and Brazilian director Walter Salles. Salles’ work has a simpatico relationship with Keroauc’s writing—an affinity for the open road as both an adventure and a new frontier for the mind. “When I first read On the Road, I was eighteen and had just entered university,” says Salles. “The book was so relevant to us because it had the magic of something we could not do in our country.”
“Here’s a generation that believed that in order to expand your understanding of the world, you had to live through the experiences that would heighten all your senses,” says Salles. “This was about living all these experiences in the flesh and not vicariously.”
Bringing the novel from page to screen has proven to be a challenge for writers and directors from Barry Gifford and Gus Van Sant to Joel Schumacher and Coppola himself—their attempts all thwarted before completing the transformation. When adapting such breathless prose for the screen, Salles recognized that, “like jazz, where the instrument is an extension of the muscian,” Kerouac had a writing style in which the typewriter was an extension of himself. In order to bring that vitality and energy to life, the film had to have an “impressionistic quality,” keeping the camera close to the actor’s body, aiming to connect the audience with the character’s experience. Salles says he only strayed from the novel in order to stay faithful to Kerouac’s sense of urgency. “We were all conscious that we needed to find something fresh and new every single day in order to be in sync with Kerouac,” he says.
Although Salles’ On the Road pays respect to the novel and captures the essence of Kerouac’s vision, there’s a gnawing dissonance between reading the author’s words and hearing them recited in a film. Reading On the Road is an intimate and thrilling experience, but an inevitable amount of magic is lost in the translation as it plays out onscreen. Despite the fact that the long and winding road to the novel’s cinematic debut satisfies our visual curiosities of the text, it raises the question: are some parts of the road better left unpaved?