Jack Kerouac gets Hollywood treatment
In 1957, shortly after the publication of his novel On the Road, Jack Kerouac wrote a letter to the actor Marlon Brando.
A breathlessly exhilarating account of hipsters carousing across America in a sea of stimulants, jazz and free and easy sex, On the Road was already a sensation, the most important broadside from what was already being called the Beat Generation, lauded by some critics as a work of groundbreaking literary genius, attacked by others as a disturbing manifesto for mindless degeneracy.
'I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie out of it,’ Kerouac wrote, going on to suggest that he should write the screenplay and play the role of the book’s narrator, Sal Paradise (a thinly veiled version of Kerouac himself), while Brando should take the part of Dean Moriarty, the book’s larger-than-life hero and an equally thinly veiled version of Kerouac’s close friend Neal Cassady.
'All I want out of this,’ Kerouac went on, 'is to be able to establish myself and my mother a trust fund for life, so I can really go roaming around the world writing about Japan, India, France etc…’ Brando couldn’t even be bothered to reply. Kerouac never lived to see On the Road made into a film. And for a long time it appeared that nobody else would either.
Like that other great rite-of-passage novel The Catcher in the Rye, On the Road has defied countless attempts over the years to bring it to the screen, as studios, directors and scriptwriters have paused at the edge of its tangled jungle of a narrative – where’s the plot? – and turned back defeated.
Now, after 55 years, directed by the Brazilian Walter Salles, On the Road finally arrives in cinemas next week. Eight years in the making and more than two hours in duration, it stars Sam Riley as Sal, Garrett Hedlund as Dean, and Kristen Stewart as Dean’s teenage wife, Marylou. 'Filmmaking is always a miracle,’ says the film’s producer Rebecca Yeldham.
'The fact you can actually get to a start line and a finish line, given all the variables, it always feels like a miracle. But this feels particularly like a miracle.’ Jack Kerouac was 29 years old when he wrote On the Road.
The son of working-class French-Canadian parents, he was an unusual combination of college football player and intellectual, whose sports career had been wrecked by an injury when he was a student at Columbia University in New York.
It was there that he fell in with a circle on the fringes of the demi-monde of drugs and petty crime, among them a young poet named Allen Ginsberg and a writer and heroin addict named William Burroughs. Kerouac himself was in the midst of completing his first novel, The Town and the City (it would be published in 1950), and was in search of a new beat for his life.
It arrived in 1946, in the electrifying figure of Neal Cassady, the son of a drunk from Denver, and a man, in Kerouac’s phrase, who had spent 'a third of his time in the poolhall, a third in jail and a third in the library’, who could hotwire a car, sweet-talk a girl into bed and quote Proust, all at the same time and without a pause for breath.
For the next two years Kerouac would be the slipstream to Cassady’s comet. 'I have another novel in mind,’ he wrote in a diary entry in August 1948, 'On the Road, which I keep thinking about, about two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don’t really find, and losing themselves on the road and coming all the way back hopeful of something else.’
It would, he went on, be a portrait of 'the lost generation’. After numerous false starts, in 1951 he sat down in his room in New York and completed the book in three weeks, taping together pieces of tracing paper into a 120ft-long scroll that he could feed into his typewriter, the better to sustain the flow of what he called 'spontaneous prose’.
A romanticised account of a series of road trips made by Kerouac and Cassady back and forth across America and into Mexico in the late 1940s, On the Road unfolds as series of joyful epiphanies – in truckstops, Greyhound bus stations, jazz dives and at the wheel of the car.
It is Kerouac’s love letter to the great American landscape, and to its hero Dean (Cassady) – a man, as Kerouac has it, 'too busy for scruples’, whose 'every muscle twitched to live and go’. When the book was published it was widely condemned as a paean to mindless kicks, although by today’s standards those kicks – marijuana, Benzedrine, free love – seem pretty tame.
But it is much more a hymn to what Kerouac described as 'the ragged and ecstatic joy of being’ – the sense that life is holy and every moment precious. While the original meaning of 'beat’ was 'down and out’, Kerouac would come to define it as meaning 'beatitude’: a supreme blessedness.
'Everything I write,’ he explained in his letter to Brando, 'I do in the spirit where I imagine myself an Angel returned to the earth seeing it with sad eyes as it is.’ Francis Ford Coppola, the film’s executive producer, first read, and fell in love with, On the Road in 1957, as a high-school student.
'It seemed so exciting and provocative,’ he recalls. In 1978, having completed Apocalypse Now, Coppola acquired the rights to the book, intending to write the screenplay and direct it himself. 'But I couldn’t solve the story issues present in the novel. It’s a freeform poetic-prose piece and difficult to structure, and ultimately I couldn’t work up the enthusiasm to do a film like that.’
Over the years, Coppola attempted to enlist various writers and directors to the project. Michael Herr, the author of the Vietnam-war memoir Despatches, Barry Gifford, the author of an oral biography on Kerouac, and Coppola’s son Roman all made passes at the script, and failed.
At one point it was proposed that Jean-Luc Godard should direct, with Dennis Hopper in a starring role, but when Hopper arrived at Coppola’s office to meet Godard he found a note from the director saying he had returned to France: 'I’ve decided that there are no new routes in America.’
It was not until 2004, when Coppola approached Walter Salles, impressed by his account of another road trip – that of Che Guevara – in his film The Motorcycle Diaries, that the search finally ended. Salles, who is 56, first read On the Road when he was a university student in Brazil, at a time when the country was under the iron fist of military dictatorship, and copies of the book were passed around from hand to hand like samizdat.
'We were living in a country where freedom was such an impossible goal to attain,’ he says, 'and here were those characters that were trying to live everything in the flesh and not vicariously, trying to find that last American frontier and the frontier within themselves. It had a profound impact on me.’ Almost 30 years later, when he came to make The Motorcycle Diaries, On the Road would be one of the first books that Salles would turn back to for inspiration.
'You could say that The Motorcycle Diaries was about the first steps of the social and political revolution and On the Road is about the very initial steps of the major cultural change.’ To work out how best to adapt a book that had defeated innumerable screenwriters and directors in the past, Salles and the screenwriter Jose Rivera spent three years shooting a 'preparatory’ documentary, Looking for On the Road, following the routes of Kerouac’s journeys across America and interviewing those who had known the writer.
In 2005 Salles met John Sampas, the antiques dealer who is the executor of the Kerouac estate, and was shown a copy of Kerouac’s 1951 manuscript – the 'original scroll’, as it is known – and was able to see the numerous amendments and omissions that Kerouac chose, or was obliged, to make before the book was published.
'This was a bolder, rawer, more resonant version of the book I had read when I was 18,’ Salles says. Reading the very first line of the original manuscript gave him the key for the screen adaptation that he had been looking for. The published version reads, 'I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up.’ But Kerouac’s original line read, 'I first met Dean not long after my father died.’
Both versions are true to the facts. But Salles says this apparently small change gave him the motif he sought: the loss of, and the search for, the father figure – in both of the book’s central characters. The loss of his father would weigh heavily on Kerouac – not least in keeping him tied to his mother Gabrielle’s apron strings throughout his life. (An elder brother, Gerard, had died when Kerouac was four.)
And Cassady’s search for his father, Neal senior, lost in an alcoholic haze in Denver, is a theme that echoes through On the Road. 'This is what I think is so moving,’ Salles says. 'Sal understands that Dean is someone who has had to find his own way in order to survive and grow. Apart from anything else, the book is a wonderful narrative about friendship.’
Salles’s film provides a vividly evocative picture of America before the coming of the great freeways that were unfurled across the country in the 1950s: an America of two-lane blacktops, rippling, golden cornfields and lonely filling stations; an America that barely exists today.
In that sense, the film – like the book – is a period piece, and the casting of established young stars such as Kristen Stewart and Sam Riley is clearly designed to attract an audience that might never have read On the Road or even heard of Jack Kerouac. But Rebecca Yeldham argues that the central theme of the book, about the individual search for freedom, remains as topical today as it was in the 1950s.
'What’s exciting about making the film now,’ she says, 'is that there’s this same urge among a younger generation to forge one’s own identity independent of parental and societal expectations. We’re living in a society that’s much more open. Things that were taboo 65 years ago are no longer taboo. But the core issues that were being grappled with by Jack and his contemporaries are the same issues that this young generation are facing today.’
In returning to the original scroll, Salles has not only resurrected certain scenes and situations that Kerouac was obliged to cut from the book because of decency issues, he has also brought a different perspective to the character of Dean Moriarty.
While Moriarty is lionised by Sal in the book as 'a new kind of American saint’, his all-too-human failings of fecklessness and irresponsibility largely glossed over, Garrett Hedlund’s Dean is an altogether more conflicted and troubled character – closer to the real Neal Cassady, drawn from Salles’s extensive conversations with Cassady’s widow, Carolyn, his son John, and others who knew him well.
This question of the fine line between the fictional creation and the real person adds another layer to the question that inevitably arises with any adaptation of a well-loved novel: do the actors match up to our preconceived ideas of how their characters should look and behave? 'People who’ve read the book have their own vision of who Sal is,’ Sam Riley says.
'And, of course, it’s quite often Jack Kerouac.’ Kerouac was short and stocky. Riley is tall and slim. 'And I’m a Yorkshireman. I wasn’t the most obvious choice.’ Riley, who has some experience of playing iconic characters – he was the Joy Division singer Ian Curtis in Control and Pinkie in the recent remake of Brighton Rock – admits that he felt some confusion as to whether he was playing Jack or Sal, such is the blurred line between them.
'I had a fairly close impression of Kerouac’s voice, but then Walter said, “I don’t want you to do an exact impression – you’re Sal.” But then there were other times when he’d say, “You’re Jack.” It was a very strange mixture of things. But I would always say I was Sal, because that protected me from being Jack – which was too much of a burden.’
But then being Jack Kerouac was a burden even to Kerouac himself. In 1951, after completing the first draft of On the Road, he wrote in his journal, 'I’m lost, but my work is found.’ He had discovered his voice as a writer – personal, spontaneous, uncensored. But his life was already beginning its descent into chaos. Drink, and the Benzedrine he took to fuel his writing, had begun to exact their toll.
In the six years between completing On the Road and its publication in 1957, he wrote a further eight autobiographical novels, none of them finding a publisher, which left him depleted and despairing of ever achieving recognition. 'Jack had tremendous integrity as an artist,’ says Joyce Johnson, who was Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time of the publication of On the Road.
'He was doing all these books that nobody wanted – they were too far-out. But he didn’t cave in and try to write something more acceptable, which he was perfectly capable of doing. Writing is all he really wanted to do.’ When Johnson met Kerouac in New York in January 1957, on a blind date arranged by their mutual friend Allen Ginsberg, Kerouac had just signed the contract to publish On the Road.
He was 34, staying in a hotel, the Marlton, where arriving guests had to step over the winos passed out on the steps. He didn’t even own a typewriter. Johnson was 21, a middle-class graduate who was working on her first novel.
She would be Kerouac’s lover for two years, going on to write a memoir, Minor Characters, which is a classic study of the era. She has recently published a book analysing Kerouac’s early life, The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac. Johnson was with Kerouac on the day the New York Times published its review of On the Road, hailing it as 'a historic occasion’ and 'an authentic work of art’, which overnight transformed him into a literary sensation. 'Jack kept shaking his head,’ Johnson writes in Minor Characters.
'He didn’t look happy exactly, but strangely puzzled, as if he couldn’t figure out why he wasn’t happier than he was.’ Kerouac had always dreamt of recognition; but he could not handle fame – or rather, notoriety. He suddenly found himself feted as 'the king of the Beats’ – the avatar of a new generation of restless youth. To Kerouac it was a farce.
'There is no relation between the pranks of the lonesome, talkative Beat Generation of the 40s and the concerted desecrations of this new delinquency hounded generation of the 50s,’ he wrote in 1958. 'We were individualists compared to the wolfpacks of today.’ 'Jack still believed in his old ideals, but then you got this media-created Beat Generation,’ Johnson says.
'It became like a fad, and it was very uncomfortable for him.’ Everywhere he went people expected him to behave not like Sal Paradise, but like Dean Moriarty. He got into fights and, frequently drunk, exhausted his welcome even with friends. 'Jack had this way of making ordinary life seem radiant,’ Johnson says. 'But then in order to be in a public situation he’d drink and become something else.
Several times when we were together he’d vow to hole up and live quietly, and we’d take the phone off the hook and he’d try not to drink. And then he would describe himself as feeling bored and it would start again.’ Kerouac would write lovingly of Johnson in his 1965 book Desolation Angels, describing their love affair as the best he had ever had.
But in the end it foundered – like all Kerouac’s relationships – on his terror of committing himself to anyone other than his mother. 'Her love for him was very devouring, suffocating, and I think it was frightening for him,’ Johnson says. 'His way of remaining faithful to her was to have many relationships with different women and not to commit himself to any one of them. It was hard for him to accept love.’
And what of Neal Cassady? On the Road ends with Sal and Dean parting company, apparently for the last time, on the streets of New York, around 1948. In fact, it was 1964 that they met for the last time. Since their days on the road together Cassady had tried, and failed, to settle down to family life; now he was one of Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, at the wheel of Kesey’s psychedelic bus on its 'acid trip’ across America.
In the apartment in New York where they were staying the Pranksters got high on LSD and grass, while Kerouac sank into a drunken stupor. In 1966, after his mother had suffered a stroke, Kerouac married his third wife, Stella Sampas. They settled in Florida. On the morning of October 21 1969 Kerouac was drinking beer and watching The Galloping Gourmet on television when he began vomiting blood.
He died later that day in hospital of intestinal bleeding caused by cirrhosis. He was 47, his literary reputation so depleted he was unable even to find a paperback publisher for his last novel, Vanity of Duluoz. Unsure what value to put on his estate, the bank valued it at a nominal $1. Neal Cassady had died a year earlier, four days shy of his 42nd birthday, apparently from exposure after being found in a coma beside a railway track in Mexico.
'It’s true that they drifted away from each other in later life,’ Salles says, 'But it’s significant to me that they died within a year of each other, as if their destinies were somehow tied. In literature and film, these ties last for ever.’ On the Road’ is out on October 12th.
by Mick BrownEmail ThisBlogThis!Share to TwitterShare to Facebook 0 comments Links to this post 'Lawless' an empathetic crime family
Tom Hardy shines as a subtle, but deadly man in this compelling adaptation of Matt Bondurant’s, “The Wettest County in the World
”. “Lawless” takes place in the Depression era in Franklin County, Virginia. Three brothers struggle to keep their moonshine business under the radar of a new deputy.
Director John Hillcoat has given his audience a script as hardcore and as bold as the extent of the violence in this film. Although the environment and the lifestyle may not be familiar to a lot of us, the characters and the multiple scenes incorporating violence are surreal, especially considering the nature of our protagonists’ business.
Hardy’s depiction of Forrest Bondurant is that of a man with more authority than he lets those unfamiliar with his personality believe due to his mild-mannered temper. Throughout the movie, he never raises his voice, but through Hardy’s facial expressions and cold demeanor, he is a seemingly subtle man whom it may not be wise to neither underestimate nor mettle.
Unlike what we’ve seen since the first release of Transformers, Shia LaBeouf shows off his potential as a decent actor. LaBeouf plays the youngest brother, Jack Bondurant — a foolish, but persistent young man — living under the shadows of his brothers looking for the opportune moment to prove himself worthy of contributing more than just transportation to their business.
Pearce’s deputy whose very sneaky and conniving nature almost pairs perfectly with Hardy’s. The anticipation of a small fight only grows as the deputy stealthily works his way through Franklin County destroying small moonshine factories.
The script, however solid, seemed to resolve almost too quickly considering that the story is based on a book inspired by true events and written by the grandson of one of the main characters of the novel. It’s a look into a life that’s very different from what we have all labeled the stereotypical lifestyle of an American during the days of Prohibition in the Depression-era.
Sure, we know about it from historical documents and textbooks, but it feels more like a surreal retelling of a family with whom we can empathize.
Jackie McGriff, of Greece, is pursuing a Master's Degree in Digital Filmmaking. Her true passions are reading, writing, and discussing and watching movies.