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?’ ”
The man who tackled the herculean task, Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles, chose to tune out the skeptical background chatter while embracing many of the important voices with a stake in the adaptation, from scholars such as eminent Kerouac biographer Ann Charters to the surviving poets, philosophers, and artists of the Beat movement.
“You have to remain faithful to the spirit of a book. That’s the most important thing. But in doing that, you sometimes have to bifurcate from the novel in order to better do justice to it,” said Salles, during an interview in December as “On the Road” was having its New York premiere. The film opens in the Boston area on March 22.
Kerouac’s novel, whose characters ramble across the American landscape soaked in booze and hopped up on Benzedrine, still stands as a burning, yearning ode to youthful freedom, rebellion against conformity, and the mad desire for self-discovery and visceral experience. Told in stream-of-consciousness style, it became a seminal work in the so-called Beat Generation of writers that included fellow travelers Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.
While “On the Road” had never before been made into a movie, it hasn’t been for lack of effort. Kerouac famously tried to coax Marlon Brando into playing the part of Dean Moriarty (alter ego of the real-life Neal Cassady). Kerouac biographer Barry Gifford and novelist Russell Banks penned scripts for producer Francis Ford Coppola. At one point, Coppola planned to direct an adaptation starring Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt. Celebrated directors such as Gus Van Sant have also been attached, with stars such as Johnny Depp and Colin Farrell rumored to be headlining.
After various failed attempts, Coppola and his son, Roman, finally enlisted Salles and playwright José Rivera to adapt the novel after seeing their 2004 road trip film, “The Motorcycle Diaries.” Based on revolutionary icon Ernesto “Che” Guevara’s memoir by that title, the film traces the formative journey of two young men searching for adventure and meaning as they cross an impoverished South America rife with economic inequality.
Salles, 56, first encountered “On the Road” in Brazil in the mid-1970s while he was in college. At the time, Brazil was under brutal military dictatorship. Censorship of the press and all art forms was prevalent, as were the torture and exile of dissidents. The book had a profound influence on him.
“It’s a book that is so inherently American but had an echo for very different reasons in Brazil at the time that I read it because we were living under this repressive regime,” Salles said. “The characters in ‘On the Road’ were seeking all forms of freedom in a conservative society colliding against them. Yet they were somehow able to define a sense of a future for themselves. That was very emblematic to me and a number of other friends who got hold of the book.”
Salles picked up the novel again before starting work on “The Motorcycle Diaries,” because he felt that the two works had a natural connection. “Both journeys are about those transitional years, from youth to adulthood, with all the moments of discovery that come with it, but also, eventually, the moments of pain,” he says. “And I wanted to infuse the ‘Diaries’ with that sense of immediacy and urgency that you have in ‘On the Road.’ ”
While he was passionate about the novel, Salles felt that he needed to immerse himself in the world of the Beats. He decided to hit the road with a Super 8 camera and make a documentary retracing Kerouac and Cassady’s journeys in the novel. He crisscrossed the country and spent time with all the major living Beat poets, artists, philosophers, and scholars that he could find, including Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Diane Di Prima, Michael McClure, Amiri Baraka, among others. In total, he spent six years, on and off, filming what he calls “Searching for ‘On the Road.’ ”
Making the documentary, Salles said, “informed us about the social-political background that influenced the story — about those very pivotal years in postwar America where you were invited and encouraged to conform. This young group of men and women refused that possibility and truly redefined what kind of future that they wanted for themselves.”
An important insight for Salles and Rivera came during a trip eight years ago to Lowell, where Kerouac’s brother-in-law, John Sampas, showed them a copy of the famous “scroll” version of the novel — the 120-foot-long roll of taped-together sheets of paper on which Kerouac banged out the original manuscript in 1951 (the original scroll has been entrusted to Indiana University). Salles and Rivera were taken with the intense, visceral quality of the scroll compared with the rewritten and edited 1957 version. They latched onto the fact that even the very first line of the scroll (“I first met Neal not long after my father died”) begins differently than does the published novel (“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up”).
“In the published version, you have somebody who had already been married, had gone through a divorce, and then meets a young man who is going to be the igniter of this journey,” Salles said. “But in the original scroll, what you have is something infinitely more powerful: the loss of a father triggering the beginning of a journey. The question of identity and the need to find your place in the world becomes vital from the first line. So the father and son leitmotif became the center of our adaptation. It’s the loss of fathers, but also the difficulty that these characters have in being fathers themselves.”
To prepare the cast — which includes Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Kristen Stewart as his child bride, Marylou — Salles staged a monthlong “beatnik bootcamp” bonding session in Montreal before production on the film began. He brought in real-life Beat Generation figures, Kerouac biographers, Beat experts, and Cassady’s son, John, to talk to the cast. They read books, watched documentaries and films from the era, and listened to a lot of jazz.
“We very much became a unit,” said Riley, who had previously dealt with the pressure of playing a real-life cult icon, as Ian Curtis of Joy Division in the film “Control.” “And we all realized that we were the guys and girls that were going to have to do this, when so many people had tried and failed and so many great actors had almost played these parts. So we all shared that burden and that gift.”
In an attempt to channel the novel’s frantic energy and free-form, jazz-influenced language, Salles encouraged improvisation throughout the shoot. “Because of the impressionistic nature of the book, you try to improvise as much as you can and incorporate what the actors, who are also passionate about this project, are bringing to the table.”
Despite her deep love of the novel, Stewart acknowledged the inherent challenges of improvising on a film shoot. “The whole process of making a movie goes against the idea of spontaneity,” she said. “You plan everything when you make a movie. So it’s like, how do you intend to be spontaneous and surprise yourself?”
A key point to remember, Salles said, is that the characters in “On the Road” are still the anxious, searching young men and women who would only later become the leading lights of the Beat movement. “This film is about the first steps of a generation that would later change the cultural landscape in America. But this story is happening in these pivotal, formative years of life, so they are confronting dilemmas and asking many questions that they don’t have the answers to yet. We tried to capture that loss of innocence, that moment where you try to find your place in the world.”