When the book first hit the public, in 1957, it really hit the public. At first sight this book was telling the story of a group of American youths that went from the East Coast to the West Coast and back with seemingly no purpose other than the purpose of getting drunk, getting stoned, and getting laid. Just in case anyone thought a setting like this needed additional salt and pepper, Jack Kerouac had put in some con-artist tricks, crazy driving and hints of homosexuality. The public was happily shocked. Following this and other books that shook standardized traditional society, the world was getting ready for the hippie era, and it had its manifesto.
I first read Kerouac’s book when Woodstock had already happened and was well out of fashion. There was no more novelty in youths frolicking around in stolen cars getting drunk, stoned and laid. Video recordings from Woodstock and Allen Ginsberg being naughty in court were already well seated in archives. What was then the big deal with this book if the story and the lifestyle were already demodé?
The description of people, settings and sequences by the narrator is a clever mixture of haziness and precision. He puts everything in a medium-speed blender: Dean, Ed, weed, San Francisco, jazz, Marylou, Mexico, cars, Carlo Marx. And you. Kerouac drags you from coast to coast, dazed and barely knowing where you are. You get your bearings only when the narrator touches base in Denver. Kerouac succeeds in making a beatnik out of you without the cold, hungry, aching discomfort of being one.
On the Road is the smoothie that comes out of the blender. Kerouac devised a completely new way of writing called spontaneous prose, with which he portrays an era and the real people and events that went with it. On the Road is technically a novel but in truth it is one, long, mesmerizing poem. About sensations, about reckless vitality, about friendship, about fragility.
Watching On the Road, released this year directed by Central do Brasil’s Walter Salles and produced by Francis Ford Coppola, one feels that one is getting a tasty smoothie but not the one that one ordered (watch the trailer). Many ingredients are the same, but the quantities, the way they combine, the ice, give a different taste. Gut sensations are there all right, but somehow they are not quite the ones one perceived from the book. The gut feelings Salles gives us are mainly those of nomadism, sex and drugs, which viewers have had enough of at least in the last twenty years of cinema.
The more important, timeless sensations such as the underlying search for purpose, are unfortunately too weak in the movie. You know words and the way words are used in the book are the true force and genius of On the Road. But the big screen cannot transmit the abstract feeling of poetry; the director knew this and inserted narration quoting several outstanding parts of the book. The effect is regrettably lost to the visuals, given that the movie has excellent photography that gets most of our attention. Accordingly, the soundtrack is well assorted and this indeed is an important contribution to the movie’s atmosphere.
If you know all about the novel’s history, you will find there is also painstaking research as to the context and several details, such as the final scene where Sal Paradise/Kerouac starts typing his story on that famous 40-meter-long paper roll. A fine touch, but it does not give the film quite what it needs to be great.
I can only guess at the reasons why a movie based on such a huge literary success as On the Road arrived only 55 years later. Probably the majors did not want to bother with those touchy subjects the book was full of. Golden-era Hollywood stars would probably not have liked to portray low life characters that never truly redeem themselves. Moreover, the book was lacking the classical plot line which means it had no clear beginning, no middle, no conflict (or rather, the book is one long conflict) no climax (here again, the book is one long climax) and no ending. So credit must go to Salles, Coppola et al, who did anyway what no one had yet taken the risk of doing. They have given us a fairly good movie, with an ending.
The saying goes: “If a book is not worth reading twice, it is not worth reading once”. Salles and his team most certainly may have done more than read the book many times during the production process. However, the deep and significant layers that come out when reading Kerouac’s novel twice, decades apart, have been missed… or maybe I just need to see the movie again in a few decades? I am afraid, however, that it still would not convey the magic of being on the road.