On The Road, On The Screen

May 10, 2012 | 1 book mentioned 9 8 min read

coverAs most readers of The Millions will undoubtedly be aware, Jack Kerouac’s On The Road is not so much a book as a sociological event. One of the most polarising works in the whole of the American literary canon, its cultural resonance continues to endure, and for many — the bohemian, the backpacker, the dropout, the hipster — it remains a sacred text. However, as well as being a work of great literary and cultural import, On The Road holds the dubious distinction of having made a journey to the big screen as tortured and as fractured as any other book one might care to mention. It has taken a total of 55 years, and almost as many screenwriters, to finally convert Kerouac’s vision of “an anywhere road for anybody anyhow” to film.

A cinematic adaptation of On The Road has been in the works almost since the day it was published. In late 1957, a matter of weeks after the novel’s appearance, Warner Brothers offered $110,000 for the motion-picture rights. At the news that Paramount and actor Marlon Brando were similarly interested, Kerouac’s agent attempted to incite a bidding war, and Kerouac himself wrote a letter to Brando imploring him to purchase the rights and co-star in it with him: “I visualize the beautiful shots could be made with the camera on the front seat of the car showing the road (day and night) unwinding into the windshield, as Sal and Dean yak…You play Dean and I’ll play Sal (Warner Bros. mentioned I play Sal) and I’ll show you how Dean acts in real life.”

Nothing came of Kerouac’s request, with Brando supposedly believing On The Road to be too “loose” for a Hollywood makeover. Meanwhile, Warner Brothers refused to meet the agent’s asking price of $150,000. A year later, a screenplay consultation with Twentieth-Century Fox was arranged, during which producer Jerry Wald insisted on the idea of Dean Moriarty perishing in a violent climax at the close of the movie. A somewhat cynical way of cashing in on the recent real life death of James Dean, this proposed ending was unacceptable to Kerouac, who terminated the consultation.

In 1958, Kerouac agreed to sell On The Road’s film rights to a small film studio for just $25,000, but not long later the studio went bankrupt. By 1960, the American media machine had grown tired with On The Road’s slow progress towards the screen, and in October of that year, CBS began airing a new television series called Route 66. The show was a not-so-thinly-veiled capitalisation on Kerouac’s hugely popular novel, featuring a pair of young American males (“Todd” and “Buzz”) roaming the interstate in search of adventure: In one episode, a dreamy ‘Buzz’ declared “…you live it the way you feel it. When it moves, you go with it…I been looking ever since I can remember.” After it aired, Kerouac tried to sue the producers of Route 66 for plagiarism, but was advised by lawyers that such a lawsuit was destined to fail.

coverTowards the end of the ’60s, the film rights to On The Road fell into the hands of independent film-maker D. A. Pennebaker, who had just found fame with his groundbreaking Bob Dylan documentary, Dont Look Back. However, Pennebaker quickly decided that — beyond an opening scene featuring the various characters sitting in a parking lot — he had no idea how to make the film. In 1969, following a long descent into isolation and alcoholism, Kerouac passed away. Interest in an On The Road adaptation waned.

It wasn’t until 1979, when the film rights were purchased by Francis Ford Coppola, that On The Road looked set for the screen again. However, what followed was 30 more years of frustration, confusion, and discarded scripts. Coppola’s struggle to turn the novel into a workable screenplay — involving aborted collaborations with around a dozen separate writers, as well as a brief flirtation with the idea of shooting the whole thing on black-and-white 16mm film — is well-documented. Even Coppola himself had a try: “I tried to write a script,” he said in 2007, “but I never knew how to do it.”

Fast-forward to 2012 then, and, finally, a cinematic adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road has been written, shot, edited, and packaged, and is set for release towards the end of May. A trailer has even been released, and the film itself selected to compete for the coveted Palme d’Or at the 2012 Cannes Film Festival.

coverThe team who have finally pulled off this once-seemingly-impossible artistic feat is an interesting one: Walter Salles, the director, was hired by Coppola after he saw Salles’ 2004 Che Guevara biopic, The Motorcycle Diaries — Salles, incidentally, calls On The Road “a book that’s had a very deep impact on my life.” Meanwhile, screenwriter Jose Rivera — who collaborated with Salles on The Motorcycle Diaries, receiving an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process — started out as a playwright, and has studied under Gabriel García Márquez.

So, after such a long and difficult journey to the big screen, what are the main existential challenges faced by Salles’ film, its possible pitfalls? And, conversely, what opportunities can this adaptation grasp; what absences might it fill? Can On The Road still mean anything in 2012? If so, what? And how?

1. Pitfalls

From Language To Image?
coverA large part of On The Road’s powerful and ongoing appeal undoubtedly stems from the lyricism of its language — as opposed to its linearity, or even narrative coherence. Translating this to the screen could quite simply be impossible. Indeed, one suspects it is the reason that, up till now, so many screenwriters have failed in turning Kerouac’s text into visual form. Influential film critic Robert Stam might lament the fact that many adaptations are judged strictly against the “fundamental narrative, thematic, and aesthetic features of [their] literary source[s],” but that is undoubtedly the way of things. And as seen in other adaptations of challenging texts, such as Mrs. Dalloway (1997) or Ulysses (1967), even when an idiosyncratic style is converted to the screen with great care and attention, the success is rarely total. To quote Regina Weinreich, in her essay “Can On The Road Go On The Screen?” (from What’s Your Road, Man?):

…many critiques of the novel cite its episodic structure as a failing. In terms of a film, the key scenes on the road in a moving American landscape, in a jazz club, at Old Bull Lee’s, would have to be made visual in an extended narrative…The novel resolved those aesthetic issues in its language, in its use of repetition, of key phrases triggering verbal riffs, in Kerouac’s expansion of language as a storytelling medium…Can the medium of film be stretched in the manner in which On The Road expanded narrative possibilities for literary fiction?

Dead As History?
coverIt might seem like an odd point to make — considering plenty of films set hundreds if not thousands of years ago are made every year — but it is possible that, as far as cinema is concerned, On The Road is (uniquely) out of date. The novel made a splash in 1957 because it tapped into a generation’s growing sense of restlessness and existential yearning — not to mention because it rebelled against the stuffy, conformist atmosphere of the post-war era. Now, 55 years on, while the novel might still succeed on other levels, there’s no denying that its content seems far less transgressive. As Kerouac scholar John Leland states in Why Kerouac Matters, “We’re no longer shocked by the sex and drugs. The slang is passé and at times corny.”

Is there a risk, then, that On The Road’s reference points (not to mention mise-en-scène) will render its adaptation a dispatch from a cultural milieu long since past? Kerouac’s text is intimately involved with its highly tangible present; its power lies in its immediacy, its urgency. But this is 55 years later, and half of America’s 20-somethings have done a coast-to-coast road trip. On The Road is about the “now in this exact minute” — but that now is now very much then. On the other hand, to utilise an atmosphere of glossy mid-century nostalgia — such as that so effectively deployed by  ABC’s Mad Men — would be highly disingenuous towards the text. Is a retrospective telling, therefore, perhaps destined to be a diminished one?

2. Opportunities

Plot Found
While On The Road is undoubtedly a frenetic, challenging story — Kerouac himself assured Brando, in that 1957 letter, that he “[knew] to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give a perfectly acceptable movie-type structure” — Salles and Rivera appear to have struck on what might be a way to tell it. Rivera says he has based the screenplay on the novel’s multi-layered theme of “finding a father.” While a departure from the novel, this at least sounds like something which might convert into a story arc, and give it some cinematic shape. It also ties into (one of) the true heart(s) of the novel, and would suggest, thankfully, that we are to receive a film that is about more than sex, drugs, and driving. Furthermore, Rivera has based much of the script on material collected by director Salles during his meticulous retracing of Kerouac’s route across America, and his interviewing of Beat figures including Carolyn Cassidy, Gary Snyder, Michael McClure, and Diane di Prima. Both men, in other words, have done their research.

Salles, meanwhile, is encouragingly bullish about the notion that the film is in any way out of date:

This is the journey of a group of young men…who confronted a society that was very impermeable at the time…Those were the McCarthy years — the Beats collided against a social and political reality that was defined by the culture of fear. It’s not very different from what we live in now. At that time, you’d hear: “Don’t do this! Don’t do that! The Reds are coming. The Atomic bomb!” Now we hear, “The terrorists are coming. Don’t do this! Don’t do that!” It’s the same state of terror. So the theme of On the Road is more contemporary today than it was 10 years ago. It gives you the possibility to understand today’s America by jumping 50 years in the past.

Cinema Loves a Road Movie
covercoverAn obvious one, but it’s true. Cinema might not have a great record when it comes to adapting Kerouac movies for the screen — witness not just On The Road‘s crooked journey, but the travesty that was The Subterraneans (1960) — but it does have a great history of producing good road movies. Films such as Bonnie and Clyde (1967) and Easy Rider (1969) are hardwired into the psyche of cinema. The ideal of The Road — with its connotations of exploration, pioneership, and personal freedom — is such a generally appealing one that the term “road trip” is part of common usage. And while Kerouac’s winding and delirious prose might be a challenge for the camera, sweeping shots of gleaming convertibles beneath a Midwest sunset aren’t. Nor — and it was one of the reasons Kerouac himself was so fond of cinema — is the depiction of live music, including jazz. Indeed, images such as “Roy Eldridge, vigorous and virile, blasting the horn for everything it had in waves of power and logic and subtlety — leaning into it with glittering eyes and a lovely smile and sending it out broadcast to rock the jazz world,” seem almost made for the screen.

Kerouac wanted it to be a film
coverThis might seem like something of a maudlin justification, but the fact is that Kerouac wanted On The Road made. Badly. Kerouac was a great lover of cinema — his personal letters are filled with praise for various films — and some of his writing spills over fully into cinematic-like writing. For example, in the “Joan Rawshanks In The Fog” section of his novel Visions of Cody (1972), the narrative focus explicitly takes on the role of a camera, and its rhythm that of a screenplay. Indeed, even in 1959, while his agent was wrangling over the rights to On The Road, Kerouac was adapting and providing a voiceover for the bizarre but surprisingly popular Beat film Pull My Daisy (1959). 

And in chapter 13 of On The Road, Sal and Dean actually go to Hollywood — where Sal declares “Everybody had come to make the movies, even me.” Ultimately, some Kerouac fans might feel that — even 55 years later, and despite the author’s lifelong sensitivity regarding the nature of the adaptation — On The Road is due for the screen.

The Beat Renaissance
covercoverYou could debate whether this is a blessing or a curse, but 2012’s On The Road adaptation would seem to tap into a recent (and ongoing) renaissance of Beat material. In 2007, the novel’s 50th anniversary, Viking published the “original version” of the novel, as typed by Kerouac on a 120-foot-long scroll. Over the next two years, the scroll itself went on a lengthily intentional tour. Meanwhile, in 2010, Allen Ginsberg’s Howl — the other chief text of the Beat generation — received an interesting and experimental cinematic makeover, with James Franco making an excellent Ginsberg. Further still, as you read this, an adaptation of Kerouac’s last (and desperately sad) novel, Big Sur, is in the final stages of post-production. It won’t ultimately affect the quality of the film — and even the casual cynic could see this timing as less serendipity, and more hard-headed commercialism of the sort that Kerouac diehards detest — but at least Salles’ On The Road is appearing at a fitting moment, when it would appear it has a wave to ride, and some wider interest to tap into. After all, if On The Road is to continue to have a cultural legacy, then what it needs more than anything is exposure.

is a British author who has published non-fiction with Aeon, The Point, Folha de São Paulo, MAKE Magazine, and others. He obtained his PhD at the University of British Columbia, and now runs a design and animation studio called Misfit Productions and an independent press called Misfit Press.


  1. This is a great write-up. Thank you.

    Salles’ and Rivera’s take on the material as a story of “finding a father” holds true to Kerouac’s earliest manuscript, where his original first line dealt not with the break-up of his marriage, but with the loss of his own father.

    Add to that Dean’s lifelong search for “old bum Dean Moriarty the Tinsmith, riding freights, working as a scullion in railroad cookshacks, stumbling, down-crashing in wino alley nights, expiring on coal piles, dropping his yellowed teeth on by one in the gutters of the West” and you’ve got a pretty compelling case for the direction they’ve taken.

    I’m hopeful that the film will bring new attention to this oft-maligned classic. It inspired me to read it for the first time last week:


  2. Thank you for your article.

    I should point out that Mad Men is aired on AMC, not ABC.

    As for the success of On the Road: It seems like the difficulty of this particular adaptation is well understood by the filmmakers. Even if, as you say, the novel’s “power lies in its immediacy, its urgency,” the film version doesn’t have to share this trait to be successful. Done right, nostalgia for such urgency and immediacy could do the trick.

  3. Great article and some really interesting issues surrounding the adaptation, but I’m afraid the trailer says it all for me – it looks like many quaint ’50s films (beautiful car screeching into a turn, period music laid on too thickly, good-looking actors whose hair styles are too perfect, etc). I’m not even a big fan of the book but its uniqueness disappears on film and the now cliched roman candles line falls flat, not to mention how lame it is to watch a scene or shot of someone writing or typing.

  4. Would be interesting if somebody could get past the sex-and-drugs meme of the 50s/60s and mine this book for what it might have to say about existing in a lost culture (and I mean the mainstream one).

  5. More curious than excited about the movie, have to say. Of interest: John Tytell has written a good history on Kerouac and the making of the Beat Generation, which is now an e-single. A great read, for those interested: http://goo.gl/HS2f1

  6. “Can the medium of film be stretched in the manner in which On The Road expanded narrative possibilities for literary fiction?”

    I think it already was, many times over.

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