Giv­ing Jack Ker­ouac’s lit­er­ary rev­o­lu­tion a con­vinc­ing cin­e­matic life took imag­i­na­tion, po­etry and a half-cen­tury of try­ing, Stephen Fitz­patrick finds

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

ONE of the best-known nov­els ever writ­ten doesn’t even start the way you think it does. Try this: ‘‘ I first met Dean not long af­ter my wife and I split up.’’ An en­dur­ing char­ac­ter in the lit­er­ary canon swag­gers right off the page as Jack Ker­ouac’s post­mod­ern mas­ter­piece, the beat gen­er­a­tion bi­ble On the Road, gets un­der way.

Ex­cept that the orig­i­nal scroll ver­sion of the novel, belted out over three fran­tic weeks in an air­less Man­hat­tan apart­ment on a sin­gle length of pa­per cours­ing freely through the young poet’s type­writer, be­gan very dif­fer­ently.

Dean Moriarty? Of course he was al­ways there. Loosely based on Ker­ouac’s soul-mate and fel­low beat free­wheeler Neal Cas­sady, Moriarty was the glue to the story of reck­less aban­don, drug-tak­ing, jazz, free-form po­etry and wild sex, all played out across the in­ter­state high­ways of the US and in its big cities along­side Ker­ouac’s al­ter ego, Sal Paradise.

But in Ker­ouac’s first imag­in­ings, the open­ing sen­tence had noth­ing to do with his wife. In­stead, the start to the tale that would float through the lives of so many quest­ing youths-be­com­ing-adults, be­gin­ning with its pub­li­ca­tion in 1957, was en­tirely about the loss of a fa­ther. And for screen­writer Jose Rivera, fresh off the back of a hit with his Che Gue­vara biopic The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries, that in­sight be­came an ob­vi­ous way to trans­form Ker­ouac’s gem for the big screen.

‘‘ That ver­sion be­gins with the lines ‘ Shortly af­ter my fa­ther’s death I met Dean Moriarty’, and that to me felt like the key to the story right away,’’ Rivera ex­plains. ‘‘ The scroll pro­vided a much more in­ter­est­ing emo­tional spring­board, and to me it be­came the story of the lost fa­ther, what­ever that is: whether that fa­ther is Amer­ica, or whether it is lit­er­a­ture, or drugs, or male com­pan­ion­ship, what­ever that is; so that’s Jack’s jour­ney.

‘‘ And then Neal’s is lit­er­ally a search for the fa­ther that’s lost in Den­ver. So seiz­ing on that, that gave me — no pun in­tended — a kind of roadmap to be­ing able to de­ci­pher the book in terms of a ver­sion for the cinema.’’

The scroll — which was pub­lished for the first time in 1997, to mark the work’s 50th an­niver­sary — is con­sid­er­ably more rib­ald than the com­monly known text. Of course, that’s no mean feat, given how far the even­tu­ally pub­lished ver­sion went with its de­scrip­tions of dis­so­lute he­do­nism. This earth­ier tone of the scroll is some­thing Rivera chose to fol­low in his script.

‘‘ You know, the scroll is much sex­ier, much rougher round the edges,’’ he says. ‘‘ It’s just a bolder piece of writ­ing than the novel that was even­tu­ally edited for pub­li­ca­tion.’’

An­other key dif­fer­ence be­tween the widely known edition and the scroll was that Ker­ouac had orig­i­nally used the real names of the peo­ple on whom his sprawl­ing ad­ven­ture was based. So as well as the Moriarty/Cas­sady dual­ity, Carlo Marx is still Allen Gins­berg, Old Bull Lee is Wil­liam S. Bur­roughs and Paradise is Ker­ouac him­self.

Rivera did not go this far in his adaptation; the fic­tional char­ac­ters are, af­ter all, the ones that live strong­est in read­ers’ imag­i­na­tions, even if the real mod­els have al­ways floated tan­ta­lis­ingly close be­hind their avatars.

But he ad­mits that cre­at­ing the adaptation re­quired him to pull On the Road to pieces and put it back to­gether ac­cord­ing to his own fash­ion. It would not have been pos­si­ble to fol­low the orig­i­nal plot slav­ishly — and to this end, it helped that he had not grown up an ob­sessed fan of the work.

‘‘ I came to the book later in life,’’ the Puerto Ri­can-born New Yorker ex­plains. ‘‘ You know, there were peo­ple of my gen­er­a­tion [Rivera was born in 1955] who would walk around with it in their back pocket, but I’m not re­ally one of those peo­ple.’’ He’s adamant, how­ever, that this was a plus, ‘‘ be­cause when I ac­tu­ally did come to the book, I came to it with a lit­tle more per­spec­tive, and so while I loved the book I also could see its lim­i­ta­tions and its pos­si­bil­i­ties as a film.’’

Rivera senses that a diehard fan would have strug­gled to get enough dis­tance for the hard slog of rewrit­ing. ‘‘ You’d prob­a­bly treat ev­ery word as sa­cred, and you wouldn’t be able to do the work that’s nec­es­sary to turn the novel into a film,’’ he says.

He says the process was one of ‘‘ elim­i­na­tion’’, of iden­ti­fy­ing out of all its ‘‘ won­der­ful sec­ondary char­ac­ters [and] amaz­ing mini­jour­neys that peo­ple take . . . what the essence of those jour­neys was’’.

In­evitably, how­ever, the idea of keep­ing his dis­tance from the novel changed with time. ‘‘ As I be­came more and more fa­mil­iar with Ker­ouac’s writ­ing, and read his other nov­els, and read the work of Gins­berg, and Neal Cas­sady, and Wil­liam Bur­roughs — the beat uni­verse — I re­ally did fall in love with what the aes­thetic was about, what they were about as a kind of lit­er­ary rev­o­lu­tion of its time, and a so­cial rev­o­lu­tion,’’ he says. ‘‘ To me the re­bel­lion of their work is re­ally sig­nif­i­cant, and I think it speaks to a con­tem­po­rary au­di­ence. Be­cause the Amer­ica of our time is al­most as blind­ingly con­ser­va­tive as it was in 1948 and in 1949 [when Ker­ouac be­gan the years of com­pul­sive trav­el­ling and note-tak­ing that would be­come the meat of On the Road].’’

Rivera points out that he had adopted some­thing of a sim­i­lar out­sider’s view to write The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries — and it’s a sig­nif­i­cant com­par­i­son, given the weighty place in pop­u­lar cul­ture oc­cu­pied by the road movie genre that both films fit into. ‘‘ There are traps in those tropes [of the road movie]; the en­tire en­ter­prise of adapt­ing On the Road is full of traps,’’ he says. ‘‘ Mean­ing that it’s such a beloved icon — it de­fined a gen­er­a­tion, in the same way that Che Gue­vara is a beloved icon that still works on peo­ple to­day.

‘‘ Part of the work that I had to do for both films was, in a way, to for­get that that iconog­ra­phy even ex­isted. I ap­proached The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries as the com­ing of age of a young man who took to the road at the age of 24 and who hap­pens to be Ernesto Gue­vara. It was the same with On the Road — to me it was the story of a young man search­ing for his fa­ther, who in this case hap­pened to be Jack Ker­ouac.

‘‘ I ac­tu­ally don’t know what the clas­sic road movie genre is sup­posed to be like — I’ve tried to re­main ig­no­rant be­cause I didn’t want to be in­flu­enced by them. For­tu­nately On the Road pro­vides so much won­der­ful char­ac­ter ma­te­rial and plot el­e­ments that it didn’t need to rely on the con­ven­tions of the genre.’’ ROAD movie or not, it’s been a long jour­ney get­ting here. Fran­cis Ford Cop­pola bought the rights to the book in the late 1970s, was an ex­ec­u­tive pro­ducer on the project in its fi­nal form and his son Ro­man had a ma­jor hand in it. Ker­ouac him­self is said to have writ­ten to the ac­tor Mar­lon Brando years ear­lier to sug­gest the pair of them star in an adaptation (Brando, it is also said, never replied).

Writ­ers and di­rec­tors of the cal­i­bre of Jean-

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