Victoria Rodrigues O’Donnell
Heralded by many as a blueprint for reckless adventure and self-discovery, it is unsurprising that film-makers have struggled for more than half a century to adapt Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic for the small screen. Hedonistic and capricious, with no clear narrative, it is easy to become intoxicated by Walter Salles’ imagery of thick clouds of smoke and the pounding reverb of the score’s double bass.
The protagonist Sal Paradise navigates his way along the American road following the allure of Dean Moriarty and his adolescent bride. In doing so, these hipsters reject the pastel-coloured interiors and happy families covering billboards in post-war USA, and instead push the limits of art, sex, drugs and jazz. All in a cross-country journey of friendship and soul-searching.
As this futile searching continues, the film soon merges into a repetitive series of scenic shots any ‘Instagram-buff’ would be jealous of, as opposed to the emotional journey Sal hoped to make. Perhaps the eventual tedium of their rootlessness journey is the one which Sal and co. needed to take in order to gain a new perspective on the conventions they rebelled against. The only problem with this is that Salles does not show us how these norms constricted them in any way.
Charismatic, indulgent and brash, Garret Hedlund’s portrayal of Dean Moriarty has an infectious charge which not only demands a lot of our attention but also drives the film along the ‘road’ we’ve been invited on. As Jay Gatsby is to Nick Carraway, Dean Moriarty is everything Sal Paradise wants to be but is simultaneously disgusted by. There are, however, only so many Benzedrine inhalers Dean can crack open to inspire Sal. The monotony of these highs causes the mind to wander and ask where are the characters who aren’t hell-bent on self-destruction?
The answer is in Tom Sturridge’s performance as Carlo Marx (based on Allen Ginsberg’s career pre-Howl controversy), which stood out like a porcelain doll, and whose delicacy resulted in unrequited love and misdirected passion. Similarly, Kirsten Dunst’s turn as Dean’s second wife is sympathetic whilst unfortunately only a supporting role.
There is some spirit in this adaptation, but only the bare bones of what Kerouac achieved with his 120ft scroll. Instead of a burning flame of the limitless desire to experience life at its fullest, we witness the romanticism of one man’s self-destruction and the consequences on those around him.