Culture

The Beat Goes On: The Lives and Legacy of a Generation

Daniel Radcliffe and Dane DeHaan in Kill Your Darlings/Photo © Sony Pictures Classics

In 1955, Allen Ginsberg wrote a poem that catapulted him into a whirlwind of acclaim and controversy. That poem was called Howl, and by 1957, both it and Ginsberg were the subject of an obscenity trial. The poem, which contains references to illicit drugs and sexual practices, also led to the arrests of bookstore manager Shig Murao and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. The trial consisted of nine testimonials by literary experts, and the judge eventually decided the poem was of “redeeming social importance.”

Along with Jack Kerouac’s On The Road and William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, Howl contributed to a major change in the literary landscape. The cultural phenomena was helmed by a group known as “The Beat Generation,” who championed a culture of drugs, alternative sexuality, and a rejection of materialism and modern standards. The youth movement that came into prominence in the 1950s is making waves again, but this time, in movie theaters.

2010 saw the release of Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s film “Howl,” starring James Franco as Ginsberg. The film chronicles the publication of Ginsberg’s work, as well as the subsequent trial. Its scattered narrative cuts back and forth between Ginsberg’s famous rendering of the poem at The Six Gallery Reading and the trial, during which the content of Howl was discussed and dissected at length. Prior to this, Ginsberg was often portrayed in film, but as a supporting role, as seen in “Naked Lunch,” “Beat,” and “I’m Not There." Franco’s take on Ginsberg is precise and heartfelt, and his cadences are spot on. Through his performance, Franco helped turn a writer of the past into contemporary screen idol for today’s audiences.

Jack Kerouac's writing style, often described as “stream of consciousness” prose, was heavily influenced by free-flowing jazz music, and later, Buddhism. Kerouac’s seminal and best-known work, On The Road, is a fictionalized account of his trips around the country. A film adaptation of the novel had been stuck in development hell for decades until last year, when Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund finally brought Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty to life. Though released in 2012, it was filmed in 2010, when the entire cast underwent a three-week “beatnik boot camp,” complete with reading assignments advised by Kerouac biographer Gerald Nicosia.

Now, moviegoers can see the Beat generation’s origin story in “Kill Your Darlings.” The film follows the budding friendship between Ginsberg (this time played by Daniel Radcliffe) and fellow Columbia student Lucian Carr (Dane DeHaan). Carr is relentlessly pursued by a former professor whose pushy romantic advances ultimately lead to his demise. The whole incident haunted the group of friends, but it served as fodder for their writing. Kerouac’s first novel The Town and the City was a fictional retelling of the event, and it is later covered in Vanity of Dulouz. Kerouac and William S. Burroughs also collaborated on a novel about the incident, over a decade before they became famous, in a work called And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which wasn’t published until 2008.

Expect to see another theatrical interpretation of the Beats with November’s release of “Big Sur,” an adaptation of Kerouac’s novel involving his three sojourns to a cabin owned by friend and publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti. But beyond that, what’s next? The Beat’s style left a clear impact on authors like Thomas Pynchon, Tom Robbins, and Christopher Moore. Hopefully viewers of films such as "Kill Your Darlings" will be inspired to take a look back and read the material that made these men so sensational.

Live a Life Well-Read Get the best of news, culture, and books delivered weekly. Join the Signature newsletter