The journey to create a film version of Jack Kerouac's 1957 ode to the Beat Generation, On the Road, has been a treacherous one. Over the years, Francis Ford Coppola, Gus Van Sant and Joel Schumacher have all tried and failed to bring the frantic, chatter-filled North American travels of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise to the silver screen. How, then, did director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera succeed where so many others have failed?
The two accepted the challenge by embracing the challenges that lay within the text. In its print version, the story is too sprawling and jagged for a literal adaptation. So Rivera hacked away at the edges, emerging with a streamlined version of the narrative that focuses on the strange, almost erotic attraction between Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and Sal (Sam Riley). The two leads don't shy away from this, looking at each other with slight twinges of hunger on which they never dare act.
With some notable exceptions—including a weary salesman played by Steve Buscemi—Dean focuses his lust on the women in his life, whom he repeatedly embraces and discards. The two most locked in his orbit are the young Marylou (Kristen Stewart in full sex-and-sass mode) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), a put-upon beauty who bears Dean's kids. Rivera lets you see the emotional scars inflicted on these women by their partners' wanderlust. It's a beautiful layer of depth to what could have otherwise been a threadbare plot.
Salles and cinematographer Eric Gautier took on the hardest part: to make the experience of travel as alluring onscreen as Kerouac does through his writing. They wrap every frame in rich, warm colors, so that even when Sal is huffing his way along a snowy stretch of road, you yearn to be walking alongside him.
More than that, the feeling the cast and crew bring forth is a rare one in movies about young people: a sense of inclusion and possibility. In one scene, Dean, Sal, Marylou and a few dozen friends spend New Year's Eve dancing to Dizzy Gillespie in a small apartment. It's so far removed from, and so much more inspiring than, the rager of 21 & Over. With On The Road, you don't need an invitation, just a desire and madness to live.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: On the Road is rated R. It opens Friday at Living Room Theaters.