Big Change, Big Sur: Is Jack Kerouac Actually Filmable?

Jean-Marc Barr in ‘Big Sur’/Image © Ketchup Entertainment

In the pantheon of American writers, Jack Kerouac sits with his own special reverence among readers. A founding member of the Beat Generation, a term which Kerouac actually coined – giving him the rare distinction of naming the very literary movement of which he was part – Kerouac rose to prominence in the late-1950s with his jazz-influenced mix of poetry and prose that was based on his own life and experiences. His themes of rebellion and spiritual freedom helped him become a counterculture icon and underground artistic celebrity. To this day, many readers (stereotypically of the teenage wannabe-bohemian sort) continue to devour and admire Kerouac’s work.

And because this is America, if there’s a writer with such a significant footprint in literary history, there’s bound to be a decent movie presence, right?

Well, not for Kerouac. It took fifty-five years for his most well-known novel, 1957’s On the Road, to be turned into a movie. In that time, Kerouac’s work gained the reputation of being “unfilmable.” And the resulting poor critical reception of last December’s “On the Road,” directed by Walter Salles and starring Kristen Stewart, seems to have confirmed the public consensus that Kerouac was a square peg to the round hole that is the book-to-film process.

Or maybe not.

The recently released “Big Sur,” another film based on a Kerouac novel, arrives in theaters less then twelve months after “On the Road,” and it resurrects the question: Can moviegoers see “the King of the Beats” properly adapted for the movies?

The reason Kerouac is considered unadaptable for film lies in his distinctive writing style, the very thing that makes Kerouac’s work so Kerouac. His frenetic descriptions read well, but when converted to a medium that uses the camera and not prose to set a scene – they fall by the wayside, which is generally not where you want a writer’s most identifiable feature to be.

“It really is the language that makes Kerouac’s stories shine,” admits Jerry Cimino, the director of the Beat Museum in San Francisco.  “Jack had a magnificent way with language.”

Along with the style of its narrative form, Kerouac’s work also throws a wrench in the film adaptation process by breaking away from the more melodramatic fodder used for plot in popular fiction, as well as the more traditional story structure. Conflicts are internal and there’s no three-act story arch.

“He very consciously wanted to abandon the structure of novels,” explains Joyce Johnson, author of The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac, who personally knew Kerouac and wrote about their relationship in her memoir Minor Characters.

It’s these characteristics that also likely led to the lukewarm response by critics to “On the Road.” Cruise through aggregate review sites like RottenTomatoes and Metacritic and you’ll find the scoring between a low forty and mid fifty percent (a 100 percent rating equates all reviews were completely positive). Click even further and you’ll find that most critics spend their reviews praising the book and citing just how the film doesn’t measure up.

Of course, not everyone abhors Salles’ cinematic “On the Road.” Cimino voluntary defends it in our conversation. He cites the reluctance of critics to appear approving of the movie’s depiction of underage sex and drug use as one reason the critical response was so poor. Another factor, according Cimino, is that Salles was focused more on depicting the actual journeys of Kerouac and his traveling companion Neal Cassidy (rechristened in the book Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarity) than the literary versions recounted years later and filtered through an older Kerouac writing them as fiction.

“People went [into the theater] expecting the legend of Jack Kerouac and Neal Cassidy and instead they got them as young guys looking to get laid,” Cimino says.

But Cimino’s biggest point in his argument in favor of “On the Road” is the often-heard point that audiences hold any adaptation to the high standards of their imaginations.  “People want the movie to match the image of the book they’ve been carrying around in their head for the last thirty years,” he says. “You’ve got to allow the filmmaker to express his own vision on the screen”

It’s a sentiment not shared by Johnson, who found Salles’ “On the Road” to be too much of a departure from the source material and not worthy enough to stand on its own. Worst of all, for Johnson, the director committed the sin of dumping the few instances where Kerouac’s words would logically transfer over into the movie – in the lines spoken by his characters.

“He basically tossed the book and used none of Jack’s dialogue,” she says, and cites reports that Salles had his actors improvise their lines in some scenes. “They did their own idea of what Beat dialogue might have sounded like. It was ludicrous,” Johnson says. “The discourse [between Kerouac/Paradise and Cassidy/Moriarty] was on an elevated level. These guys were intellectuals. It wasn’t ‘Hey man, this’ or ‘Hey man, that.’”

And then of course there was the gratuitous sex that was added to the story to spice up the film.

“You were sitting there and people started taking off their clothes and you said, ‘Oh no, not another sex scene!’” Johnson recounts with a slight laugh. “It was wrong,” she says of Salles’ “On the Road” in general, “just wrong.”

In the end, “On the Road” showed the particular dilemma faced by a filmmaker turning a Kerouac story into a movie. On the one hand, any film adaptation will make too many changes to the story to truly keep the spirit of source material (as well as adequately satisfy fans); and on the other, it will be too closely aligned with the original book to be recognized as its own story.

So what can “Big Sur” show us about adapting Kerouac?

When I finally get on the phone with Michael Polish, the writer and director of “Big Sur,” he’s in a car leaving the taping of an appearance on a late-night comedy talk show to promote his movie. He sounds tired and worn out from the publicity tour, but there remains a strain of enthusiasm in his voice when talking about his film and Kerouac. Polish explains that Big Sur, which is one of Kerouac’s later works and centers around the author’s nervous breakdown following the literary success of On the Road, always struck him as serving as a good overview of the writer and his life.

“It encompassed everything Kerouac was about,” he says. “It wasn’t just one slice of his life. You were able to see the artist’s life portrayed in this book and chronicle his breakdown.”

When I get to the question of adapting Kerouac to film, Polish says the last thing you’d expect a guy promoting his film adaptation of a Kerouac novel to say: “For the most part, people are right,” he admits. “Kerouac is unfilmable.” But after brief dramatic pause he adds: “… in the sense that people watch movies.”

According to Polish, the mistake when it comes to adapting Kerouac is trying to make the work fit into the configuration of a film that audiences are used to seeing. “If you take his book and make a three-act structure or try and put forward a movie in the better sense of what people know what movies are like, you’re going to have difficulty translating his writing,” he says. So instead of making the work fit the medium, Polish’s solution was to make the medium fit the work. A prospect that sounds even riskier when you realize he was shooting “Big Sur” before “On the Road” premiered and thus didn’t have the forerunner of Salles’ Kerouac adaptation to see what worked and what didn’t.

“Nobody had any example of how we were going to do this,” says Polish. “I was trying to push something that many people haven’t seen before.”

The resulting film isn’t exactly a movie in the conventional sense, but more a cinematic reading of the book with a heavy presence of voiceover narration pulled directly from the novel and the verbatim dialogue of Kerouac’s characters. Polish says he made the conscious choice to “go with [Kerouac’s] words and let him direct what you’re going to see or hear next.”

“There are only twelve words I wrote myself, everything else is Jack Kerouac,” Polish proudly tells me. He adds later: “That’s the only way you’re actually going to see a Kerouac movie on film.

For his part, Kerouac seems to have known that his writing wasn’t something that could be strictly adapted for the movies. It’s no secret that he corresponded with a Hollywood producer about changing the story of On the Road for the screen by adding more melodramatic elements. Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty became war buddies who go out on the road for adventures and Dean ends up committing suicide by crashing his car after Sal chooses to settle down.

According to Johnson, Kerouac had an affinity for movies. “He was actually quite interested in films. Films were important to him all his life,” she explains. In fact, Kerouac expressed a desire to make his own movies and may have only agreed to sellout to Hollywood in order to pay for his own independent film ventures.

“He talked about his admiration for French movies,” says Johnson, who points to the 1959 short film “Pull My Daisy” as “the real beat movie.” Kerouac had made the film, which stars Allen Ginsberg and other beat poets, with photographer and filmmaker Robert Frank and based it off of his then-unpublished play “The Beat Generation.”

“It gives you the idea of how a Kerouac film should be made,” says Johnson. “That was also entirely voiced over and the narrator was Jack.”