“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”
That quote is probably the most famous quote from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which happens to be one of my favourite books of all time. I read it about 6 months ago, and the image of it has been imprinted on my mind ever since. In fact, while experimenting with literary allusion in one of my recent drama scripts, On The Road was my instinctive choice of novel. In my opinion, an opinion which I’m willing to debate with anyone who disagrees, I might even go so far as to say that On The Road is the greatest ever American novel.
As the above quote suggests, the book is fast-paced, adventurous and unpredictable, and written in a beautiful yet often understated tone which I have never read in anything else (except perhaps Allen Ginsberg’s Howl, which I quoted in a previous blog post). It is the epitome of the American dream, of free-living and unrestricted happiness, yet without the extravagance, pretence or dark-side of something like Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby.
So you can probably imagine my anxiety when I discovered that a film version would be released this year.
It was inevitable that I was going to watch it – how could I avoid it? I had to see if it was possible to put something so inspiring into a film, and properly translate all the atmosphere and emotion the book conveys.
Having now watched the film, I could confidently rate it around 93/100. Remember that this is one of my favourite books of all time, so that is really an unexpected score, even for me. Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty was inspired casting, as was Sam Riley as Sal Paradise. Both were superb, and were almost exactly as I pictured them when I read the novel. I had had initial doubts over the casting of Kristen Stewart as Mary-Lou, but in fact she also puts in a good performance, identifying the lusty, youthful, unreserved character and crystallizing it. I was less convinced by Kirsten Dunst as Camille – perhaps it was a slightly two-dimensional performance, but maybe that was because of the small amount of screen time she gets. She also did not seem to fit my vision of how Camille should look, but then that is completely subjective.
It was also good to see Aragorn making a comeback as Old Bull Lee for a scene.
The film itself, regardless of the casting, completely captured the expanse and adventure that the book conveys so well. Shots from the car of the great American outdoors, from foggy New England to the Arizona desert to the swamps of Louisiana, are what truly makes the movie great. The characters are almost arbitrary – of course it is their story that pulls us around the country, but the true protagonist of the film is the United States. Without the landscapes, the opportunity, the variety of people and places and ways to get between them, the novel and the film would be impossible. On The Road is about an author trying to keep up with a spinning man as he whirs from state to state, high on America. The director, Walter Salles, manages to capture this, whilst keeping it in balance with the manic drug-abuse, relentless sex, and high emotions which drive the characters.
The film also highlights some things about the novel which I had never noticed when I read it for myself, and so I am not entirely sure whether they do indeed feature in the book or not – if anyone knows, correct me please!
Some of these are very pleasant surprises; the character of Carlo Marx, who I read as slightly one-sided, is developed into a sensitive innocent through a relationship with Dean Moriarty, which is stunning in the film.
On the other hand, watching Garrett Hedlund have aggressive sex with an ageing Steve Buscemi for $20 was not something I saw coming. It did not detract from the film, but I’m pretty sure I would remember something like that if it actually happened in the book.
(IT’S OKAY, CRISIS AVERTED)
Finally, there was the heart-wrenching closing scene, in which Dean and Sal part for the last time – Dean as a bum, and Sal looking wealthy and successful. I had never picked up on the sadness inherent in the book, because I was too busy idolising the characters. But Hedlund does a fantastic acting job, and I would not be surprised to see him up for Oscars and Golden Globes in a few months time.
I guess that concludes my review of On The Road. There’s nothing left to say, except that I can no longer contain my excitement about going to America myself next September.
Just to let you know, I’m intending to also take a load of drugs, travel around until I have no money, father three illegitimate children and then become a vagrant.