Published May 23, 2012
CANNES, France – Fifty-five years after its publication, Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" is finally burning on the big screen.
Everyone from Marlon Brando to Jean-Luc Godard to Brad Pitt has circled the classic 1957 novel over the last six decades, but Walter Salles' adaptation is the first to actually get made. The wait isn't for lack of desire: Kerouac passionately wanted to see his book made a film, even writing Brando a letter promising that he could turn the book's lyrical road trips into a "movie-type structure."
"On the Road" premiered Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival, far away from the American roads crisscrossed by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the characters modeled on Kerouac and Neal Cassady, respectively.
"Unless you revive it by rereading it, re-imagining it, performing it, it's a dead thing," said Viggo Mortensen, who plays the William S. Burroughs character in the film. "You have to reread it to make it live again."
The pun is inevitable: It has been a long road for "On the Road." Though there was interest in a Hollywood adaptation as soon as it was published, nothing came of various negotiations and attempted screenplays. Francis Ford Coppola purchased the novel's rights in 1979, and he, too, failed to grasp an interpretation.
It's his son, the director Roman Coppola, who's producing "On the Road," which is being released in various international countries over the next few months, with a U.S. release prepared for late fall by IFC Films and Sundance Selects.
The Brazilian director Salles became involved after making another road movie: 2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries," which chronicled a South American trip by a young Che Guevara. The "On the Road" screenplay is also by the writer of "The Motorcycle Diaries," Jose Rivera.
Both films, Salles said in a press conference for the film Wednesday, are about "a social and political awakening."
"It's about the search of that last frontier that they will never find," Salles said. "It's about also discovering that this is the end of the road and the end of the American dream."
Much of the problem in adapting "On the Road" is its meandering narrative in which Paradise (played by Sam Riley) and Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) make a series of cross-country road trips in post-World War II America, where their intellectual, passionate bohemian ways (and copious amounts of cigarettes, booze and marijuana) sometimes clash with a more conservative society. There are many girls along the way, who are played by Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Alice Braga.
"On the Road" gets the group's passionate, carnal camaraderie, but it struggles more (as was perhaps inevitable) to capture the white hot pulse of Kerouac's book, which was famously written in three weeks on a long scroll (though that story underestimates Kerouac's earlier notebook writing).
Kerouac writes: "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 that never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles."
"Those characters in the book had the courage to experience everything in the flesh," said Salles.
But to make the early days of the Beat Generation (Tom Sturridge plays the Allen Ginsberg character) alive again, Salles went to great lengths for realism. He spent five years making an unreleased documentary on the book and says the entire process of making the film covered nearly 100,000 kilometers (more than 62,000 miles).
Descendants of the book's real-life inspirations were also consulted and Salles held a four-week "boot camp" for the cast before starting shooting in Montreal to soak up Beat history. Stewart, who plays Moriarty's girlfriend Marylou, says she poured over audio tapes of Luanne Henderson, her character's inspiration, and met with Henderson's daughter.
"I genuinely felt like I could look up in a moment where I wasn't getting somewhere or a moment where I was feeling like I was reaching too hard or too desperately," said Stewart. "I felt her. And I would have never had that without her daughter or those tapes."
Whether "On the Road," the film, will seem as relevant to audiences now remains to be seen. Mortensen suggested the story bears particular contemporary resonance in a time of youthful protests over the economic collapse and in the Arab Spring.
Said Mortensen: "I think it was worth the wait."