NEW YORK — Translating an iconic novel into a movie can be a process fraught with peril, one that’s felled even the most talented of filmmakers. But when you’re adapting a book as embedded in the American popular consciousness as Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road,” you better have the same thirst for adventure and scorching spirit of rebellion that burns across the pages of the novel. The 1957 countercultural cri de coeur, by a native son of Lowell, has long stood as one of those sacred and “impossible-to-adapt” texts, so any filmmaker must face the judgment of finger-wagging fans, fussy scholars, and the survivors of the Beat movement.
Sam Riley, the 33-year-old Brit who plays Kerouac’s alter ego, Sal Paradise, in the long-awaited cinematic adaptation of “On the Road,” sums up the dilemma: “A lot of people are going to think it sucks. A lot of people are thinking that it shouldn’t be made or can’t be adapted well. A lot of people are going to think, ‘Sam, who? The English guy? Why the [expletive] should he play Kerouac?’ ”