How do you make a watchable movie out of an unreadable book? "That's not writing, it's typing," Truman Capote famously said of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, and who am I to disagree?
But so what? Legends must be dealt with, and in his film, director Walter Salles captures the melancholy exuberance of the story and the stylized cadence of its dialogue without our having to waste time on the book's jagged prose.
On the Road is partly famous for what it's not: Intending to write an autobiography, Kerouac had to change the names of his characters, thus creating one of the 20th century's most famous romans à cléf (which no doubt further maddened Capote, whose own Answered Prayers destroyed him).
So Kerouac becomes the reticent Sal Paradise (Sam Riley), Neal Cassady is the tragic Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), Allen Ginsberg is a charismatic Carlo Marx (Tom Sturridge), the reedy oddball William S. Burroughs becomes the cocky Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen). And of course, there's the nightmare girl: LuAnne Henderson, renamed the ne-plus-ultra-American Marylou, and played by a significantly down-to-earth Kristen Stewart.
Like the name says, Sal and Dean go on the road for adventure, circa late 1940s: There's love, sex, drugs, alcohol, bebop, drugs, sex, drama, pathos, chaos, sex, loss — the usual subjects in a Bildungsroman of emerging writers like Sal (and Carlo, who sleeps with Dean). Sal and Dean both have daddy issues, and they dedicate their adventures to "the good old demented men we loved." The ambisextrous Dean is clearly the object of Sal's hidden affection, but at least in this veiled telling, all Sal finally does is watch and inwardly yearn.
Salles' moody, energetic film is more enjoyable than Kerouac's book, but that should be no surprise: Who doesn't like to watch beautiful young people engaging in a romantic tragedy and a mad dash for life — watching them "burn, burn like Roman candles across the night." Who wouldn't want to live like this, as long as you live through it, which Sal and Dean (i.e., Kerouac and Cassady) more or less didn't. (Ginsberg turned out OK.)
The actors are outstanding, spirited and comfortable, effecting gentle imitations of their historic counterparts. The sole exception is Stewart, the Kerouac of her acting generation, who isn't half bad. The period feels right, too: the cars, the landscape and the bittersweet sensation of aimlessness in all of the people that the sojourners meet.