Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund in ‘On the Road’/Image © 2012 IFC Films
So much for meandering detours and aimless wandering.
Tom Waits and Bob Dylan, among other diehard fans of Jack Kerouac's On the Road, may have had cause for concern this week when recent news surfaced that filmmakers behind the long-awaited adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s masterpiece may have abandoned their vagabond ideals with the decision to shave about fifteen minutes off the most recent cut of the film, opting for a more direct route to bigger box office and Oscar contention.
The easy explanation here is that after director Walter Salles' adaptation of "On the Road" failed to ignite much passion among critics after debuting in May at the Cannes Film Festival, Salles took another crack at the film’s two-hour-and-twenty-minute running time. In any other high-profile book adaptation, this would simply be business as usual. But considering the decades spent developing and fine-tuning a script that would best capture the poetry of Kerouac’s free-associative Beat travelogue, this retroactive tinkering feels like a concession for commercial appeal that’s blatantly out of synch with the free spirited source material. In other words, it’s the kind of thing that Dean Moriarty would rail against in a three-page riff on the virtues of a life without concessions to the tyranny of the status quo. Or, in this case, the critical establishment, Oscar voters, and moviegoers.
Whether or not this second pass will make the film more palatable remains to be seen. But ever since the film's glossy trailer hit the airwaves several months back, there's been cause for concern that the story’s essential Beat-ness has been buffed and shined out of a film populated by languid young movie stars thoughtfully uttering their lines in carefully composed shots. On the Road is the literary equivalent of a scratched up Billie Holiday LP whose imperfections and aberrations invite a kind of intimacy that transports the listener to mysterious states of ecstatic discovery inaccessible through more traditional and tidy recordings.
This idea of the beauty in decay lies at the heart of On the Road. It’s the book’s essential message, and one that's informed and inspired the work of renegade artists from Waits' and Dylan's early shambling and scuffed free-associative songwriting to the exuberant pursuit of the impetuous in films like "Easy Rider" or even "Sideways."
Perhaps it’s unrealistic to expect that this adaptation embodies all that Kerouac packed into the pages of On the Road. But we’re holding out hope that these filmmakers took their cues from Kerouac’s fearless refusal to pander and please in the service of capturing the messy ecstasy of a journey without destination and life lived in the moment without concern for consequence (or commercial appeal).
What does your gut tell you about the prospects for this adaptation living up to the promise of its source material? Name your top five road trip movies. Here’s ours: "Stranger than Paradise," "Wild at Heart," "The Passenger," "Flirting with Disaster," "Y tu Mama Tambien."