I have never understood the argument that On the Road is “unfilmable.” Sure, Jack Kerouac’s career-making book is voice-driven and essentially plotless—really a memoir as much as a novel (and the former genre, as I wrote here a couple weeks ago, does seem more resistant to adaptation than the latter). Still, On the Road is a decidedly visual piece of writing, and its imagery could not be more cinema-friendly: young, attractive people driving cars, dancing in jazz clubs, and sleeping with each other. (Kerouac, for what it’s worth, hoped it would be brought to the screen: He wrote Marlon Brando in 1957 and asked the actor to play Dean Moriarty, suggesting himself as the co-lead, in the role of Sal Paradise, the book’s very autobiographical narrator.)
Now, Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the rights to the book in 1979, has finally shepherded an adaptation to the screen, serving as executive producer, with Walter Salles (The Motorcycle Diaries) directing, and Sam Riley, Garret Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart in the leading roles.
Riley, who was excellent as Joy Division frontman Ian Curtis in the so-so Control, certainly looks the part of Sal Paradise. But is that him doing the voiceover? If so, why does he sound 60 years old? And will the movie be as dependent on that voiceover as this trailer is? I hope not—though some Terence Malick-style narration might work well. (With any luck, Salles watched Badlands a few times while he was working on this.)
And there are some encouraging signs, too—like that supporting cast: Kirsten Dunst, Terrence Howard, Elisabeth Moss, and the pretty much always excellent Viggo Mortensen (not to mention Steve Buscemi and Amy Adams, who don’t appear in the trailer, but also have roles in the film). The cinematography looks suitably kinetic, and the costumes, sets, and cars evoke the immediately post-WWII period in which the novel is set.
Most striking of all, though, is Kristen Stewart, who steals this trailer from her male co-stars and the famous supporting players. The role of Marylou, the teenaged ex-wife of Dean Moriarty and a “beautiful little sharp chick,” in Kerouac’s words, should be a rich one, if the adaptation’s any good. I’ll be very curious to see what Stewart does with it.
On the Road will reportedly premiere at the Cannes Film Festival in May.