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).
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.