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Stuck in 3rd gear,
This review is from: On the Road [DVD] (DVD)
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Jack Kerouac has on the whole been ill served by the movies. Adaptations of his work have been few and far between - an understandable situation if you've read his books - with only The Subterraneans having been transferred to the big screen before now. Rarely bothering with plot or story, Kerouac is a mercurial and improvisational autobiographer rather than novelist, capturing fleeting and vivid impressions of events in language that often breaks free of sense or clarity in favour of immediacy. Even his most famous book has until now eluded moviemakers. No one was able to commit to filming it despite earlier interest or potential involvement from the likes of Marlon Brando, Francis Ford Coppola (as director) and Johnny Depp.
I was always sceptical about whether it could be done anyway, for the same reasons that other literary classics don't really work on film - Ulysses for example - namely that they are first and foremost self-conscious TEXTs, focused on structure, form, language and only secondarily, if at all, interested in story. Literalness is the plague that has afflicted adaptations of such texts, so one would have assumed, or hoped, that Kerouac's adapters here would have dodged this most obvious of approaches.
Sadly On the Road the motion picture does suffer from this affliction too, going so far as to include unnecessary biographical detail that was omitted from the book. Valid this may be to set the record `straight' historically, I would nevertheless question it as an artistically sound approach to adaptation. Even Cronenberg in his brilliant stab at The Naked Lunch felt compelled to go down the same route, though at least that was done with some verve and wit, so one can see that it is an approach that is hard to resist. Yet despite this major flaw, and the terrible earnestness throughout, the film looks great and still has some moments that work and which do capture the spirit of the book.
One the most enjoyable parts of Kerouac's novel for example, is the description of Sal Paradise's time at Old Bull Lee's ranch. Uproariously funny in the book, the film captures this section superbly, with Viggo Mortensen's note perfect turn as William Burroughs being a particular joy, but frustratingly it moves on from this vignette far too swiftly.
So not a great film then, and not a bad film either, it just seems a bit too much in awe of its source's iconographic status. It could have benefitted from a less reverential take on a book which after all is ultimately a fleet-footed and vivid account of the folly and fun of being a good looking and intelligent young dude travelling across a vast country with your best buddy looking for girls, fathers, fun and the transitory and unachievable IT.