On the Road (2012)

Garrett Hedlund and Sam Riley in On the Road (2012)

The appeal of Kerouac’s On the Road isn’t its story – a loose, rambling journey across America featuring lots of drugs, sex and hitchhiking. The power of the novel is its prose, the way it encapsulates the optimism and possibilities of youth.

To its credit, Walter Salles’ adaptation gets that. The plot is unimportant and frequently incoherent and that’s perfectly fine. Occasionally Salles will capture the novel’s essence for a fleeting moment, as a cloud of dust drifts across an endless highway, in the darkness of a fire escape as Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) share a post-revelry smoke, or – in a less poetic moment – as the two share a handjob from MaryLou (Kristen Stewart).

Kristen Stewart in On the Road (2012)

Such flashes of brilliance are insufficient. Hedlund tries to capture Dean Moriarty’s charisma with force and braggadocio. Salles strives for the druggy essence of Kerouac’s writing with jump cuts, overlapping dialogue and a jittery jazz soundtrack. They rarely succeed. The film is simply too modern, all rich orange and sombre blues and oh-so-perfect colour correction. The novel is rough. It needs the grain of film, the harsh yellow of a ‘70s independent film. Instead, Salles’ On the Road is a McDonalds repackage, lacking authenticity.

Rating: 101/200

11 thoughts on “On the Road (2012)

    • Yeah. I mean, it’s a hard ask! The whole novel has this livewire, druggy, impossible energy that is, I imagine, very difficult to translate to film – whether you’re an actor or director. I don’t necessarily blame Stewart or Salles or anyone, just I think they bit off more than they could chew.

      (Though I think Brad Pitt-circa-Fight Club would’ve made a good Dean Moriarty)

  1. We disagree on this one, it’s one of my favourite films from 2012 lol. Nonetheless, it’s a great post! I love the book and thought the film did the best job possible in capturing its bizarre, earnest, chaotic lyricism. The acting is phenomenal, and I feel that Stewart did a magnificent job.

    • Fair enough – perhaps the film did the best job possible, I just didn’t find it overly convincing. I might just have standard set far too high – Kerouac’s novel is in my top 10 of all time and made a real connection with me when I first read it. This was a disappointing imitation for me.

      • Love the way you worded it, “perhaps it did the best job possible.” I think it’s nearly impossible to perfectly adapt the novel as there are some qualities that just don’t transfer. Same here, by the way. The first time I read it, I re-read it over and over again. Easily my favourite novel of all time, or at least in the top 5 ;).

    • It’s actually one of the best scenes in the movie – it plays off the combined boredom and freedom of being on the road, it revels in the characters’ youthful sexual tension, and it captures that sense of “fuck it, let’s just do this” that made the book so compelling. Plus, you get to see Kristen Stewart’s boobs, so it’s got that going for it too!

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