There are three On The Roads, really. There’s the novel Jack Kerouac finished in 1951, telling the story of rootless young renegades Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, who crisscross the country taking drugs, screwing prodigiously, listening to jazz, and plunging headlong into unconventionality. Then there’s the story that inspired the book, which is a loosely fictionalized take on Kerouac’s own experiences in the late ’40s with his pal Neal Cassady and their circle of poets and free spirits. Finally, there’s the long afterlife of the novel, which drew new attention to The Beat Generation when it was finally published in 1957, inspiring a new generation to go exploring—including Ken Kesey and his proto-hippie Merry Pranksters, who counted Cassady as a member and mentor.
Walter Salles’ long-gestating film version of On The Road was scripted by Jose Rivera, and executive produced by Francis Ford Coppola, who’s been trying to make a movie out of this novel since 1979. It suffers, perhaps inevitably, from the dissonance between the three On The Roads. Salles brings the half-lyrical, half-docu-realistic style of his arthouse hit The Motorcycle Diaries to this abridged rendition of Kerouac’s rambling, episodic novel, casting Sam Riley as a moody Sal, who treks across the U.S. and Canada under the influence of the ice-cool Dean, played by Garrett Hedlund. But since there’s no plot, just a series of anecdotes, much of the meaning in the movie version of On The Road is meta-textual, relying on the viewers’ knowledge of who Kerouac was, and how the novel’s vision of America differed from how most of the rest of popular culture documented the ’50s.
Salles’ primary asset is Hedlund, who isn’t as much of a live wire as the book’s Moriarty (or as the real-life Cassady was, at least as described by Tom Wolfe in The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test and Hunter Thompson in Hell’s Angels), but is still a charismatic, anarchic force. Hedlund’s Dean seems so appealingly comfortable in his own skin, even when he’s describing an interracial sexual adventure to Riley in a quaint middle-class living room. But the rest of the cast seems unsure whether they’re playing characters in a story or figures from history. Riley’s Kerouac rasp—much like Viggo Mortensen’s William Burroughs imitation as On The Road’s “Old Bull Lee”—is indicative of the way Salles’ film is weighed down by too much baggage. When these young men get high and shout their toast “To life,” they don’t seem like real people savoring their youth, but rather like illustrations in a book about how the Beats behaved.