In 1951, after three cross-country road trips, Jack Kerouac wrote his defining novel: On the Road. The book, published from a continuous 120-foot scroll, chronicles his adventures (as Sal Paradise) with Neal Cassady (renamed Dean) through life-changing experiences of drugs, sex, jazz and poetry. Now the novel is becoming a movie, 31 years after Francis Ford Coppola obtained the rights.
Filming on the long-delayed adaptation is finally underway. Walter Salles, whose The Motorcycle Diaries carries similar themes of finding one’s self on the open road, is directing a stellar cast and the inimitable Coppola is executive producing. To celebrate, I read both the June 2005 and May 2010 (production white) drafts of the screenplay by Jose Rivera, who collaborated with Salles on Diaries for a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Of course, this is only an evaluation of those drafts and not of the unfinished film:
The script begins with a Queens apartment, where Sal Paradise’s cancer-ridden father takes his last breath through a cigarette filter and drifts away in Sal’s arms. At the funeral, it’s clear this is a pivotal moment in his young adult life; the bittersweet beginning of a new chapter. Sal (Sam Riley), described as a “former college football star now a struggling novelist,” drinks away his sorrows with his “brooding, waif-like” friend Carlo Marx (played Tom Sturridge), also a suffering writer. (Marx is the alter-ego of Allen Ginsberg.)
Together they are introduced to Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), wearing nothing but a “con man’s seductive smile” on his handsome face. This nude entrance is an instant establishment of Dean’s carefree, sexually-charged attitude, but each subsequent, similar meeting illustrates the erosion of the group’s “raging testosterone, energy, and appetite” with time and maturity.
In a departure from earlier drafts, Rivera includes the first moments of Sal’s friendship with the charismatic Dean, who ultimately has a profound, inspirational influence on him, rather than leaping into their relationship already in progress. This is a critical shift because the newest draft focuses on how their bond arcs through their road trip exploits, instead of the story of Sal seeking solace and inspiration in his travels.
The two become fast friends, but Sal develops an almost hero worship of Dean that blinds him to his buddy’s selfish vanity and reckless behavior. Rivera compares Dean to Jesus at the last supper as he passes a cup of coffee spiked with Benzedrine and breaks into another existential conversation in a haze of “benny.” It’s one of several drug-fueled larks of unbridled, youthful exuberance, often celebrations of their freedoms or precursors to sexual flights of fancy (threesomes, orgies, public nudity, and homosexual experimentation). These unrestrained antics serve as a stark contrast to a postwar society plagued by McCarthyism and inhibited by conservative principles.
On Sal’s first trip he meets Terry (Alice Braga), a beautiful Chicana girl, on a bus to Los Angeles and they share a fondness for the road. Faced with the prospect of becoming an agrarian family man, Sal flees, not ready to settle… yet.
Women come and go through their lives, usually linked to Dean, but represent something very different for both young men. For example, Marylou (Kristen Stewart) is introduced as Dean’s 16-year-old wife (naked, of course) and a free-spirited, sexual nymph around the boys. But Sal takes an immediate interest in her “subtle, natural beauty” and they exchange fleeting, flirty glances and talk of living together.
Dean’s other wife, Camille (Kirsten Dunst), embodies the responsibilities he leaves behind on the road, and Sal’s picture of an eventual happy home life.
On the road again, Dean, Sal and Marylou meet the affable Ed Dunkel, his tough wife Galatea (probably Elisabeth Moss), the “brilliant drug addict” Old Bull Lee (Viggo Mortensen, described as “35 going on 95″), and his “once beautiful” wife Jane (Amy Adams). Through the two couples, Sal learns how to make a relationship last and has his first realizations about finding a proper woman.
Rivera splices intermittent pieces of Kerouac’s poetic prose with Sal’s coming-of-age self discovery story, but makes the script his own. A bit about a writer’s self-loathing and the historical context of their wild exploits are on the mark, but perhaps more impressive is his control of the characters’ energy, from rowdy spontaneity to Sal’s gradual disillusionment.
Salles, Coppola, and a talented cast already had many excited for the 2011 film, but Rivera’s script should be the biggest and best reason to look forward to On the Road.
Set photo credit: EclipseMovie