The surprising thing isn’t that “On the Road” took so long to be made into a movie. Jack Kerouac’s novel was published in 1957. Walter Salles’s film, starring Sam Riley (as Sal Paradise), Garrett Hedlund (as Dean Moriarty), and Kristen Stewart (as Marylou), opens Friday. What’s surprising, perhaps, is that someone bothered to make a movie of “On the Road” at all. So much of the novel has percolated so thoroughly through the culture. Many people who’ve never read the novel feel as though they have, it’s so familiar. It wouldn’t be a surprise if they felt they’ve watched it, too.
“On the Road” doesn’t have much of a plot. It’s episodic — more a set of circumstances and impressions than any sort of well-wrought narrative. The chief circumstance is restlessness. The title tells you that. The characters drive and hitchhike and take the bus, crisscrossing the United States and down into Mexico.
The novel is also a set of characters. Robert Altman and Paul Thomas Anderson notwithstanding, Hollywood has never much cared for ensemble. Maybe that’s another reason “On the Road” has taken so long to be adapted. The characters are pretty transparently based on the Lowell-born Kerouac (Sal) and his Beat buddies: Neal Cassady (Dean), Allen Ginsberg (Carlo Marx, played in the movie by Tom Sturridge), William Burroughs (Old Bull Lee, Viggo Mortensen), Carolyn Cassady (Camille, Kirsten Dunst).
One of the novel’s great strengths is the interplay among its many characters and their sense of easy camaraderie. That sense of playful conviviality very much informs the 1959 short “Pull My Daisy,” featuring a number of Beats and their associates. Kerouac wrote the script and narrated. It was directed by Robert Frank. Frank is best known for his landmark 1958 photography book, “The Americans.” Not only can it be seen in parallel as a kind of visualization of “On the Road,” but Kerouac wrote the introduction. See how complicated this business of “On the Road” ramification can get?
It’s no joke to suggest that the novel could just as accurately have been titled “Friends.” Circumstance and multiple characters are right up TV’s alley (or highway, as the case might be). Among the first progeny of “On the Road” was a network television series, “Route 66.” The hour-long drama ran on CBS from 1960-64. Its Sal and Dean were the better-scrubbed pair of Tod and Buz. Played by Martin Milner and George Maharis, they roamed the country in Tod’s Corvette. Could it have been just a coincidence that Maharis, whose Buz was by far the hipper of the two, bore a resemblance to Kerouac?
Kerouac was movie-star handsome. He’d also been a football star. His striking physical presence comes across in photographs and news footage. It’s one reason that there are a lot of both. It’s also a reason he’s been the subject of at least six documentaries: “Kerouac: The Movie” (1985), “What Happened to Kerouac?” (1986), “Jack Kerouac’s Road” (1987), “Beats” (1994), “Go Moan for Man” (2000), and “One Fast Move or I’m Gone: Kerouac’s Big Sur” (2008). And that’s not counting related documentaries, like “The Life and Times of Allen Ginsberg” (1994). With so much Kerouac-iana available on the screen, and so much overlap between life and novel, a movie version of “On the Road” could seem redundant.
There have been fictional movies, too. “Heart Beat” (1980) has John Heard as Kerouac and Nick Nolte as Cassady. Todd Rotondi plays Kerouac in “Howl” (2010), which focuses on Ginsberg and his most famous poem, which gives the film its title. Played by Daniel Martinez, Kerouac also shows up as a character in “Beat” (2000), about Burroughs, played by Kiefer Sutherland, and the lethally unfortunate denouement of his marriage (Courtney Love is his wife). And in “Kill Your Darlings,” about a real-life 1944 murder case, Jack Huston plays Kerouac.
The richest Beat influence has been musical: with Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead, and Tom Waits heading the list. There’s a certain irony in this impact on rock, since the music that Sal and Dean listen to is jazz — and a fairly mainstream jazz, at that. The pianist George Shearing and guitarist Slim Gaillard actually make cameo appearances in “On the Road.”
What those musicians responded to in the novel — looseness of form, unconventionality in lifestyle, openness to experience — filmmakers did, too. Who knows if John Cassavetes had read “On the Road” when he made his directorial debut, “Shadows” (1959). But in roughness of style, high energy level, startling immediacy, and a general exhilaration born of a sense of being made up as it goes along, the works are kin as well as almost exact contemporaries.
Soon enough this new attitude and approach would inform even studio features. “Everybody had come to make the movies, even me,” Sal says in the novel, when he’s in Los Angeles. You can feel it in so many of Altman’s best films, and an executive producer of “On the Road” is Francis Ford Coppola, who bought the movie rights in 1979.
It wasn’t just in sensibility that “On the Road” can be felt in Hollywood and independent film. Kerouac joined the romance of the road with the romance of friendship. Without the example of Sal and Dean behind the wheel, would there be “Easy Rider” (1969), “Stranger Than Paradise” (1984), “Midnight Run” (1988)? It’s not just a guy thing, either, as “Thelma and Louise” (1991) reminds us. Sal and Dean could just as well be Sally and Deanna. The lure of the road is universal. The Beats go on.