Sometimes, to be more faithful to their sources, movie adaptations of books need to be unfaithful. Nothing can be duller than movie adaptations that wrongheadedly hew too closely to a book, reproducing every plot point, including every minor character, even quoting actual dialogue, yet failing to get at its essence. On the other hand, movies that veer, sometimes wildly, from their sources not only succeed as films, but capture something—a mood, a theme, or an emotional impact—of the book, too. And that makes sense. Filmmakers are, obviously, making films, not writing books.
Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road definitely suffered from an overabundant reverence for Jack Kerouac’s novel. While Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera included some of the novel’s most famous—and infamous—scenes, including some of the more outré sex scenes, it was a bit surprising that from a novel in which the narrator famously says, “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’”, Salles managed to make such a lethargic movie.
Admittedly, On the Road must have been especially vexing to translate into a movie: it doesn’t have a conventional plot or characters, and a large part of its appeal lies in the narrator’s voice. One would think, then, that finding some way to capture that voice would be essential for any successful film adaptation. Instead, the movie focused on the relationship between the novel’s two main characters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity. In and of itself, there’s nothing wrong with such a focus. To do any adaptation, one needs to find an angle, an in, and if Salles found it in the relationship between Sal and Dean, that’s fine.
But it seems to me that it in dramatizing the relationship between Sal and Dean, the film might have captured the novel’s voice. After all, Sal and Dean don’t just have adventures, they talk about them, and they talk about their pasts, and their desires, and their dreams, and just about anything but the commonplace and never yawningly. They are in search of IT, something beyond words and even thingness, but they need those words, words, words to get closer to IT—no, not that, maybe this, no not this, how about that over there?—exhausting all possibilities through language, the words zooming and caroming like the cars they use to crisscross the country.
Instead, there are stretches in the film where Sal and Dean sit in silence, and when Dean does speak, especially at key moments, he speaks with a measured portentousness that seems at odds with his usual recklessness. It strikes me that the conversations between Sal and Dean might have been missing from the film because they are not recorded—at least at any length—in the novel. They are, instead, mostly spoken about. Here’s where some veering away from Kerouac’s novel was needed. We needed to hear those conversations. Had he not felt up to the task, Rivera could have referred to other Kerouac novels, especially Visions of Cody, the other fictionalized account of Neal Cassidy, who served as Dean Moriarty’s inspiration, that even includes a 128 page transcript of taped conversations between Kerouac and Cassidy that undoubtedly were the kinds of heart-to-hearts that Sal Paradise was referring to in On the Road. Still, it would have required creating material not in the novel that, for the sake of a manageable running time, might have meant abandoning some of the novel’s famous—and infamous—scenes.
It strikes me that Richard Linklater might have been better suited to adapt On the Road. He has an affinity for those who are mad to talk, having made a number of lovely movies centering on people doing just that, and his films show an understanding of the pleasures of the shagginess of the picaresque—a tradition that Kerouac saw his novel participating in. Regardless, what On the Road needed was a reimagining that would have allowed the characters and incidents, and more importantly that voice, from Kerouac’s novel to come alive. In being so faithful to the novel, Salles’ film was, in the end, unfaithful.