I’ve always considered On The Road to be one of my favourites books. Along with Crime and Punishment and Infinite Jest, it’s one of the books that has made the most impression on me. Having not read it for a couple of years I decided to reread it, to see if I still liked it, and to try and get an impression of how it will translate to the big screen. After watching the trailer, I’m pretty certain it’s going to suck. Here’s some brief reasoning.
Anyone who has read On The Road, or has any awareness of Kerouac as a writer, will know about the concept of spontaneous prose. The story goes that it was the result of three weeks of solid typing onto one continuous scroll of paper in a drug fuelled haze. Though true in the widest sense, Kerouac had spent the previous five years planning and drafting , filling notebooks with the stories and ideas that form the bulk of On The Road. His method for spontaneous prose required planning before it could be executed. His prose emulates the frantic and frenzied style of Bebop, rushing to communicate every thought or idea in his head, with a scant regard to the standard ideas of sentence structure and punctuation. But you know this, because it’s pretty common knowledge. It’s not like I’m discussing the use of involuntary memory in Proust’s In Search Of Lost Time (which I’ve read by the way – I am that smart). What’s not clear is how this is going to be emulated in the film version. I would imagine there’ll be lots of shots of the characters racing around, talking very fast, and saying “man” a lot. Maybe lots of handheld cameras. It’s going to look like Spinning On The Needlebliss.
One of the things that bugs me about any discussion of On The Road in the press is the portrayal of Kerouac as a icon of cool, a king of the beat generation. Reading the novel, it’s painfully clear that Sal Paradise (aka Jack Kerouac) is not cool. Dean Moriaty (aka Neal Cassady) is the cool one, the figure of fun that all the characters flock to, the one that inspires them to write and think and talk in the way they do, the one that lights the spark. In a famous passage Kerouac describes watching Ginsberg & Cassady walking down the road, highlighting the gulf between them, the cool ones, and him, the outsider. The first part of the novel details Kerouac’s attempts at following Cassady, trying to locate him and by extension all the life that he is living. His willingness to do whatever Cassady said, even when he has misgivings, is hardly the behaviour of a king of any scene. By the end of the book, through arguments and abandonment, the two become equals. My point is that the Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac character is not the leader of the pack. On The Road is not about a leader and his gang; Jack Kerouac is not King of the Beats. I have a feeling that the film, and more likely the press coverage, will miss this point. Make sure you keep your eye out for style pieces using On The Road as a crutch to flog Levis, khakis, white tees and flannel shirts.
Some other things I’ll be interested to see if they address – Sal Paradise & Dean Moraity crushing on 16 year old girls and Mexican prostitutes, and Carlo Marx & Dean Moraity having a sexy relationship (not that there’s anything wrong with it). Mostly, I think the film will fail to portray the sense of longing and searching that On The Road is about. It’s not really about what the characters get up to in Denver or New York or San Francisco. It’s about them looking for an answer, trying to find out anything and everything about the world at a time when they’re almost completely lost. The On The Road film will push the adventure angle, make the parties the important thing. It’s basically going to look like Skins.