It was with great anticipation that most of us rushed to the theater to see Kerouac’s classic brought to the screen. And as the first images appeared along with Sam Riley’s voiceover, the hope that it would meet our expectations hung still. Does the movie have it?
But soon the realization that there was something lacking from the succession of first sequences came as a bold evidence. What of the beat? What of the fever? There is no fleeting madness in this form, especially in the first part of the film. While the content of the book is there, the spirit is lacking. Walter Salles delivers a movie that is faithful to his body of work with well-established shots and matching cinematography, but which distances itself from Jack Karouac’s masterpiece.
Many pointed at the inadaptability of the book in terms of structure, saying that it is inherently literary and does not work cinematically. And truly, the text is a constant back and forth between places, with inumerable flashbacks, no beginning, no middle nor end as such, no climax, but a force that drives the story forward: that of Kerouac’s, who wrote his story in one breath, in the incredibly short and quite extraordinary amount of time of three weeks. The structure of the novel mainly revolves around the importance of Dean Moriarty’s character, a central figure that turns out to be greatly altered in the film.
Dean is wild, Dean drinks, he sleeps with men and women, Dean is on drugs for fun. Dean says “I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I do all these dumb things; think in all these distored ways“. But we never really see it. Why does he do it? Why is everyone so fascinated with him? Kerouac’s Dean is on the edge of everything, on the edge of reason, he mumbles his rambling thoughts, he is feverish even when he is not on drugs, he is looking for a truth through experience, he is looking for it, a meaning for life, for his existence. He looks for it through sex, drugs, jazz, travel, passionate friendship, and cruel distanciation from others. But unlike in the film, those are not the end, they are vessels for Dean’s quest for truth. And he fascinates everyone because it seems that sometimes, when he is being Dean Moriarty, he sees it, he sees a glimpse of truth and they are fascinated by the possibility that Dean Moriarty, that crazy, restless character, might actually be right. And that is why they follow him: because they too, want to experience it. Dean Moriarty is the force that pulls the narrative forward, he makes Sal Paradise leave and explore. In the movie, Dean Moriarty is just wandering aimlessly, he has no it, no purpose.
The other characters however are portrayed quite faithfully: Kirsten Dunst as sweet Camille, Sam Riley’s voice highlights the beauty of the text, Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx turns out to be an interesting revelation, adding a depth to his character that we find lacking in others. Kristen Stewart as a 16-year old Marylou proves surprisingly believable in this difficult part. She is probably the one that conveys the best the ambivalence of her feelings towards Dean, between fascination and hatred, with one beautiful shot of her in the car on the verge of crying. Garrett Hedlund only reaches the potential his character could have had from the sequences in Mexico to the very end. The script did not allow the Dean Moriarty in him to reveal himself sooner.
The «unsaid» dimension of the novel is absent. The silence between the lines, what Kerouac voluntarily skips, the fascination Sal Paradise has for Dean, the subtext of homosexuality, their common quest for the loss of their father – everything is visually or verbally explicit in the film. It could have been otherwise.
Dean Moriarty is no longer the backbone to the structure in the film while he carried the spirit of this inspiring book. It is perhaps why in the end it feels so right when Sal Paradise starts typing: «I first met Dean not long after my father died». A sentence that lingers long after the movie ends, along with Sam Riley’s voiceover when he utters the almost mystical last words: «Dean Moriarty, Dean Moriarty, Dean Mo-ri-arty».