Everyone from Marlon Brando to Jean-Luc Godard to Brad Pitt has circled the classic 1957 novel over the last six decades, but Walter Salles’ adaptation is the first to actually get made. The wait isn’t for lack of desire: Kerouac passionately wanted to see his book made a film, even writing Brando a letter promising that he could turn the book’s lyrical road trips into a “movie-type structure.”
“On the Road” premiered Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival, far away from the American roads crisscrossed by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the characters modeled on Kerouac and Neal Cassady, respectively.
“Unless you revive it by rereading it, re-imagining it, performing it, it’s a dead thing,” said Viggo Mortensen, who plays the William S. Burroughs character in the film. “You have to reread it to make it live again.”
The pun is inevitable: It has been a long road for “On the Road.” Though there was interest in a Hollywood adaptation as soon as it was published, nothing came of various negotiations and attempted screenplays. Francis Ford Coppola purchased the novel’s rights in 1979, and he, too, failed to grasp an interpretation.
It’s his son, the director Roman Coppola, who’s producing “On the Road,” which is being released in various international countries over the next few months, with a U.S. release prepared for late fall by IFC Films and Sundance Selects.
The Brazilian director Salles became involved after making another road movie: 2004’s “The Motorcycle Diaries,” which chronicled a South American trip by a young Che Guevara. The “On the Road” screenplay is also by the writer of “The Motorcycle Diaries,” Jose Rivera.
Both films, Salles said in a press conference for the film Wednesday, are about “a social and political awakening.” “It’s about the search of that last frontier that they will never find,” Salles said. “It’s about also discovering that this is the end of the road and the end of the American dream.”
Much of the problem in adapting “On the Road” is its meandering narrative in which Paradise (played by Sam Riley) and Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund) make a series of cross-country road trips in post-World War II America, where their intellectual, passionate bohemian ways (and copious amounts of cigarettes, booze and marijuana) sometimes clash with a more conservative society. There are many girls along the way, who are played by Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Alice Braga.