Road movie puts Jack Kerouac's famous novel back on the map
ONE of the best-known novels ever written doesn't even start the way you think it does. Try this: "I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up."
An enduring character in the literary canon swaggers right off the page as Jack Kerouac's postmodern masterpiece, the beat generation bible On the Road, gets under way.
Except that the original scroll version of the novel, belted out over three frantic weeks in an airless Manhattan apartment on a single length of paper coursing freely through the young poet's typewriter, began very differently.
Dean Moriarty? Of course he was always there. Loosely based on Kerouac's soul-mate and fellow beat freewheeler Neal Cassady, Moriarty was the glue to the story of reckless abandon, drug-taking, jazz, free-form poetry and wild sex, all played out across the interstate highways of the US and in its big cities alongside Kerouac's alter ego, Sal Paradise.
But in Kerouac's first imaginings, the opening sentence had nothing to do with his wife. Instead, the start to the tale that would float through the lives of so many questing youths-becoming-adults, beginning with its publication in 1957, was entirely about the loss of a father. And for screenwriter Jose Rivera, fresh off the back of a hit with his Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, that insight became an obvious way to transform Kerouac's gem for the big screen.
"That version begins with the lines 'Shortly after my father's death I met Dean Moriarty', and that to me felt like the key to the story right away," Rivera explains. "The scroll provided a much more interesting emotional springboard, and to me it became the story of the lost father, whatever that is: whether that father is America, or whether it is literature, or drugs, or male companionship, whatever that is; so that's Jack's journey.
"And then Neal's is literally a search for the father that's lost in Denver. So seizing on that, that gave me - no pun intended - a kind of roadmap to being able to decipher the book in terms of a version for the cinema."
The scroll - which was published for the first time in 1997, to mark the work's 50th anniversary - is considerably more ribald than the commonly known text. Of course, that's no mean feat, given how far the eventually published version went with its descriptions of dissolute hedonism. This earthier tone of the scroll is something Rivera chose to follow in his script.
"You know, the scroll is much sexier, much rougher round the edges," he says. "It's just a bolder piece of writing than the novel that was eventually edited for publication."
Another key difference between the widely known edition and the scroll was that Kerouac had originally used the real names of the people on whom his sprawling adventure was based. So as well as the Moriarty/Cassady duality, Carlo Marx is still Allen Ginsberg, Old Bull Lee is William S. Burroughs and Paradise is Kerouac himself.
Rivera did not go this far in his adaptation; the fictional characters are, after all, the ones that live strongest in readers' imaginations, even if the real models have always floated tantalisingly close behind their avatars.
But he admits that creating the adaptation required him to pull On the Road to pieces and put it back together according to his own fashion. It would not have been possible to follow the original plot slavishly - and to this end, it helped that he had not grown up an obsessed fan of the work.
"I came to the book later in life," the Puerto Rican-born New Yorker explains. "You know, there were people of my generation [Rivera was born in 1955] who would walk around with it in their back pocket, but I'm not really one of those people." He's adamant, however, that this was a plus, "because when I actually did come to the book, I came to it with a little more perspective, and so while I loved the book I also could see its limitations and its possibilities as a film."
Rivera senses that a diehard fan would have struggled to get enough distance for the hard slog of rewriting. "You'd probably treat every word as sacred, and you wouldn't be able to do the work that's necessary to turn the novel into a film," he says.
He says the process was one of "elimination", of identifying out of all its "wonderful secondary characters [and] amazing mini-journeys that people take ... what the essence of those journeys was".
Inevitably, however, the idea of keeping his distance from the novel changed with time. "As I became more and more familiar with Kerouac's writing, and read his other novels, and read the work of Ginsberg, and Neal Cassady, and William Burroughs - the beat universe - I really did fall in love with what the aesthetic was about, what they were about as a kind of literary revolution of its time, and a social revolution," he says. "To me the rebellion of their work is really significant, and I think it speaks to a contemporary audience. Because the America of our time is almost as blindingly conservative as it was in 1948 and in 1949 [when Kerouac began the years of compulsive travelling and note-taking that would become the meat of On the Road]."
Rivera points out that he had adopted something of a similar outsider's view to write The Motorcycle Diaries - and it's a significant comparison, given the weighty place in popular culture occupied by the road movie genre that both films fit into. "There are traps in those tropes [of the road movie]; the entire enterprise of adapting On the Road is full of traps," he says. "Meaning that it's such a beloved icon - it defined a generation, in the same way that Che Guevara is a beloved icon that still works on people today.
"Part of the work that I had to do for both films was, in a way, to forget that that iconography even existed. I approached The Motorcycle Diaries as the coming of age of a young man who took to the road at the age of 24 and who happens to be Ernesto Guevara. It was the same with On the Road - to me it was the story of a young man searching for his father, who in this case happened to be Jack Kerouac.
"I actually don't know what the classic road movie genre is supposed to be like - I've tried to remain ignorant because I didn't want to be influenced by them. Fortunately On the Road provides so much wonderful character material and plot elements that it didn't need to rely on the conventions of the genre."
ROAD movie or not, it's been a long journey getting here. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the book in the late 1970s, was an executive producer on the project in its final form and his son Roman had a major hand in it. Kerouac himself is said to have written to the actor Marlon Brando years earlier to suggest the pair of them star in an adaptation (Brando, it is also said, never replied).
Writers and directors of the calibre of Jean-Luc Godard and Gus Van Sant have been involved in various attempts to give it life - what the film's Australian producer Rebecca Yeldham, who also worked on The Motorcycle Diaries with Rivera and director Walter Salles, calls an "incredible legacy of incredible filmmakers and artists".
But perhaps because of its enormous place in literature, no one had managed to turn the book into a film - until now.
Yeldham - who, in contrast to Rivera, says the novel had a profound influence on her view of the world when she was about the same age as its main characters, even prompting her to leave Australia and seek new experiences - believes part of the strategy for getting it right this time around was making a conscious decision "not to read all the pre-existing scripts". There was also that business of going back to the scroll version - "back to brass tacks" as she puts it.
The other key was the long-term involvement - the project took more than eight years - of all its key members, including its quite phenomenal cast.
Adolescent fantasy object Kristen Stewart, made a starlet in recent years by the Twilight franchise, may seem a surprise choice for Cassady's wandering lover Marylou, but Yeldham points out Stewart came on board well before she was catapulted into the Hollywood stratosphere. Her subsequent success "became a real driver for us, to be able to put the financing together", she says. "Her dedication to this was really important to our ability to get the film made."
Garrett Hedlund, electrifying as the complex Moriarty, was the filmmakers' first choice for that role and is said to have turned down other offers during the years it was in development in order to make sure this one stayed his.
Not that there wasn't plenty of competition for the part - "as you can imagine, all the known and semi-known actors were wanting to be considered for the part," Yeldham notes wryly. But Hedlund's audition "just blew everyone away and even though he didn't mean anything to financing, Walter just said, 'that's the guy I'm making the movie with' ".
Yeldham describes the entire cast and crew relationship as "like a rolling stone that just kept gathering the most delicious moss; actors just wanted to be part of this experience".
Sam Riley as Sal Paradise is finely wrought. Viggo Mortensen is an absolutely spot-on Old Bull Lee, Amy Adams is convincingly insane as Old Bull's wife, Jane, Tom Sturridge is Carlo Marx, Steve Buscemi plays - well, Steve Buscemi, as you'd expect - and self-described Kerouac fan Kirsten Dunst wholly inhabits the character of Moriarty's wife, Camille.
The fact that Camille's real-life inspiration, Caroline Cassady, is still alive and living in London was enormously helpful, Rivera says - not least because she told the filmmakers in no uncertain terms what she thought of Kerouac's novel.
"She really impressed us, and said she never liked the book, because her character is just the girl who cries," he explains. "So it really fell to me in writing the screenplay to give her back her added dimension - there are scenes in the screenplay that are not in the book that highlight other dimensions of [Cassady]." Yeldham takes that line further, describing the profound influence the book had on her as a 17-year-old in the late 80s - even if, as a then nascent feminist, "I had issues with [its] representations of women".
She says at that age she was only beginning to fully understand how, as a woman "one could be prejudiced against; I was reading the book through that lens, without really having a full understanding of the context in which the book was written, and how radical, in retrospect, these women were."
Or, as Rivera puts it with regard to the "limitations" he saw in the book: "That's one of them: that female characters tend to be used, they get pregnant, they get left behind. I really wanted in the screenplay to make them a little more equal to the guys, in terms of their own personal rebellion and their own desires."
On the other hand, Yeldham points out, what the book captures magnificently is a bewitching and romantic version of America; it's driven through with the mystique of the place that persuaded her more than 20 years ago to pick up sticks and leave Sydney.
"As a young person growing up back home, I had this sense of this majestic sprawling poetic landscape - and I guess I'd derived that from literature and cinema - that the book just completely captured," she said. "And it's no surprise for me that [the US] is the place I ended up, not Europe, and not elsewhere."
But scouting locations for the film revealed a "bittersweet" truth: that the America Kerouac portrayed barely exists any more. "Even in the 20 years since I've been over here, it's changed," Yeldham says. "You have to really make a deeply concerted effort to get off the road to find the byways beneath the highways, to discover an America that's outside of the Walmartification that's bulldozed through this country. I think that what's so striking about the book is the specificity of cultures within the culture - it's so nuanced, and each town brings new discoveries, each town brings a new dialect and new ways of wearing clothes and new ways of looking at the world, and that's just not the case any more."
Yeldham is passionate on her topic. She describes On the Road as "a love letter to the sprawling nature of America as a character in the story"; as a result, she points out, the movie could never have been made on a Hollywood backlot. It had to be shot on the road, literally. Accordingly, Kerouac's obsession with the sweep of the continent and the energy of its people is captured on a huge scale.
"You have a passage of locations, from the cities of New York and Denver and San Francisco, to the bayous, to the wide open plains, from the mountains to the valleys," she says. "So we had to really travel far afield, and structure the production with multiple hubs, in order to realise that grandeur and sprawl."
There was a four-year development process, she says, even before casting began, "because Walter [Salles] was very conscious of the fact that he was not American, and it was an iconic American text [Salles is Brazilian]. He really wanted to not only fully immerse himself in the world of the story and the generation that gave rise to it, and its socio-political context, but he wanted to meet those that had been around Jack and Neal, those that were still alive, those that remembered, those that could help him contextualise it, and also crisscross the country, searching for the America that was articulated in the book - such as it still exists."
The quest for authenticity gained heightened intensity once the cast came together; Rivera tells of a "beatnik boot camp" Salles conducted for several weeks in Montreal. "He got an apartment building, and everyone in the cast lived there," the writer says. "He hired a cook to cook for everybody, and for several weeks had different people who were experts in the beat culture come and talk to the cast. So they all lived together, they ate together, they took dancing lessons together, they watched movies together, they listened to jazz records together, they listened to lectures together.
"I was there early on, so I worked on the script with the cast, we played games, we got drunk together; it was a real bonding situation, and the growing friendship between Sam and Garrett and Tom really began there - and also Kristen, who was just one of the boys after a while. Really that all just started there and kept on going."
No one could make a credible On the Road without treating seriously the poetic language Kerouac found to write it with - after years of wrestling with its style - and the often outrageous behaviour of its central characters, given how intent they were on tearing down the social mores of an America finding its way into a new, postwar existence.
Rivera's script certainly pulls no punches on that front. "[The beat poets] were pioneers," he enthuses. "They were living in communes before there were communes, they were white guys going up to Harlem to listen to the jazz when no other white people were doing that, they were experimenting with what they called free love, they were obviously doing a lot of drugs, experimenting with homosexuality, and they were just breaking taboos left and right.
"And it's not that they woke up one morning and said, let's make a revolution. They just lived life, and the rest of the country kind of caught on."
The fact that Kerouac's voice was so distinctive, among an entire movement of distinctive voices, was also an important element to capture. "Whatever the novel was at the time, he kind of strangled it, killed it and turned it into something else," Rivera says.
"The jazziness, the stream-of-consciousness style, the rhythms he created, the riffs that he wrote, that kind of subconscious attempt to turn writing into music, was what really set him apart. And you know, a lot of people don't like it, a lot of people then and even now can't stand it. But you can't deny that it was a revolution in form."
On the Road opens on September 27 in Australia.
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