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