The long and grinding story of On The Road
After 30 years of false starts, Jack Kerouac's cult novel is finally to be filmed.
It's a considerable irony that Jack Kerouac wrote On the Road in three weeks: its screen adaptation has been almost 30 years in the works. Rather at odds with Kerouac's so-called "spontaneous prose" style, attempts to film this defining novel of the Beat Generation have been mired in development hell ever since Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1979. Since then, the book that William Burroughs said "sent countless kids on the road" has been left stranded at the side of Hollywood's highway. Still, with a tentative release date of 2009, it finally seems that 52 years after its publication, On the Road , the movie, will finally be motoring.
For the past three years, the Brazilian-born Walter Salles, whose new film, Linha de Passe, is released this month, has been working on a version that he hopes to "be shooting either at the end of this year or the beginning of the next". But will it happen? The story of two drifters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – thinly veiled portrayals of the author and his friend, Beat icon Neal Cassady – Kerouac's episodic account of his seven-year span of road trips across America has defied attempts to bring it to the big screen. "It doesn't have a plot," says poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "It was a road novel – a picaresque, like Don Quixote."
The first screenwriter to tackle Kerouac's work was Michael Herr, who penned the hypnotic voiceover for Coppola's Apocalypse Now before co-writing Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Then came Barry Gifford, who not only had experience of the road movie after adapting his Wild at Heart for David Lynch to film but also wrote Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac with Lawrence Lee. After these versions were rejected, Coppola himself took a crack, writing a script with his son Roman (who co-wrote the script for another spiritual journey, The Darjeeling Limited).
"I tried to write a script, but I never knew how to do it," Coppola told me last year. "It's hard – it's a period piece. It's very important that it be period. Anything involving period costs a lot of money."
It probably didn't help when it came to convincing financiers that Coppola planned to shoot on black-and-white 16mm film. He held auditions in 1995, with poet Allen Ginsberg (the inspiration for the book's Carlo Marx) in attendance, but the project again collapsed. Then it materialised a few years later, with Coppola again at the helm, and Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt mooted to play Paradise and Moriarty.
After this version also faltered, Coppola brought in the novelist Russell Banks. It was now 2001 – the year the 120ft scroll of tracing paper on which Kerouac wrote the book was sold at auction for $2.4m – and Joel Schumacher was in line to direct Banks's script. Billy Crudup replaced Hawke, and it was said Schumacher wanted Colin Farrell to play Moriarty. Yet again the project failed. Citing Vietnam and the murder of Martin Luther King as watersheds, Banks says, "You could never have the innocence that On the Road portrays, where two white guys could roll a pack of Luckys in the sleeves of their T-shirts, get in an old Hudson, drive to Denver and think they'd gone to another planet. You could never again have visions of liberation, freedom and control like that."
If translating Kerouac's "innocence" to a modern audience remained problematic, Coppola finally saw a way forward when he came across Salles's 2004 film The Motorcycle Diaries, his adaptation of Cuban revolutionary Che Guevara's account of his 1952 trip through South America. The parallels were immediate: like Kerouac, Guevara was a counter-culture icon whose book seemed almost unfilmable. Yet so taken with Salles's elegant film was Coppola, that he recruited him and screenwriter Jose Rivera to tackle On the Road. "It's something Coppola cherishes and I'm honoured to be involved with him," says Salles. "He's one of my filmic heroes."
As for his relationship to On the Road, it's not hard to believe Salles when he says "this is a book that's had a very deep impact on my life". Before The Motorcycle Diaries, he made Foreign Land (1996) and the Oscar-nominated Central Station, both road movies of a sort. Even his latest, the Sao Paolo-set Linha de Passe, the story of four brothers and their pregnant single-parent mother, feels like preparation for Salles, with its telling final shot of a stolen bus heading on to the open road. Still, nothing prepared Salles more than making a documentary late last year about researching for On the Road. "I decided to try to understand if the film needed to be made, or could be made," he says.
Currently being edited, Salles's as-yet-untitled documentary afforded him the opportunity to retrace Kerouac's route across America, while interviewing many of those who became inspiration for characters in the book, including Cassady's wife, Carolyn. Others featured include assorted Beat poets such as Gary Snyder, Michael McClure and Diane di Prima, as well as those influenced by the movement, from Wim Wenders to David Byrne. "That is my preparation to do the fiction," Salles says. "For The Motorcycle Diaries, I did the journey [taken by Guevara] twice before actually shooting it." When you do a project like this, you have to have a take on it."
Salles's take is at odds with Banks's understanding that Kerouac's book is impossible to convey in these times. "This is the journey of a group of young men, sons of immigrants, who confronted a society that was very impermeable at the time," says the director. "Those were the McCarthy years – the Beats collided against a social and political reality that was defined by the culture of fear. It's not very different from what we live in now. At that time, you'd hear: 'Don't do this! Don't do that! The Reds are coming. The Atomic bomb!' Now we hear, 'The terrorists are coming. Don't do this! Don't do that!' It's the same state of terror. So the theme of On the Road is more contemporary today than it was 10 years ago. It gives you the possibility to understand today's America by jumping 50 years in the past."
Previous attempts to bring the Beat generation to life – notably The Last Time I Committed Suicide, with Thomas Jane as Cassady – have hardly drawn favour. But Salles is at pains to assure Kerouac's rabid fans, those that consider On the Road their Beat Bible, that his version will not be given a Hollywood makeover. "We have to make sure the project can be done in a completely independent manner," he says. "That it can be done with the actors who are right for it. You can't work with Leonardo DiCaprio on something like this. They were 20 years old!"
There is no word yet as to who will play Kerouac, but it's rumoured that Kirsten Dunst may play Camille, the fictional counterpart to Carolyn Cassady. Now 84, the real-life Cassady recently stated she was happy with the choice of Salles to direct Kerouac's work, not least because he looks set to offer a more three-dimensional portrait of Kerouac's world. "Everyone just wants Jack's wild side, his hedonistic side," she says. "He was so much more than that. His last five years, he was miserable. I argue with Francis about it. I say everybody's going to the movie anyway, no matter what you do, so do it right."
'Linha de Passe' opens on 19 September; 'On the Road' is scheduled for release in 2009