TORONTO -- On Thursday night, Walter Salles's big screen adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic 1957 novel On the Road had its North American premiere here at the 37th annual Toronto International Film Festival, with stars Sam Riley, Garrett Hedlund, and Kristen Stewart in attendance. I caught the film's second TIFF screening on Friday morning, going directly from the airport to the theater with my massive suitcase in tow, and then hopping into a ticketholders line that curled around six city blocks. The high level of interest in the film is due, perhaps in equal parts, to the popularity of the novel and of Stewart, who became the star of the blockbuster Twilight franchise shortly after being cast in this long-gestating project.
Over the years, many began to wonder if Kerouac's 320-page novel, widely regarded as among the finest works produced by the Beat Generation, was actually unadaptable. Kerouac himself had tried to recruit Marlon Brando to star in a film version in the '50s; Francis Ford Coppola desperately wanted to direct it in the '70s; and many others made similar efforts that failed. Ironically, it took a Brazilian -- Salles, who is best known for another road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004), and who shot a not-yet-released doc about the Beats before commencing production on this feature -- to round up a suitable script (penned by Jose Rivera), a mid-range budget ($25 million), and a worthy cast.
The plot of On the Road is familiar to many of us. Sal Paradise (Riley) -- a surrogate for Kerouac -- recounts the years that he spent in the late 1940s, after the death of his father, driving across the country with his close friend Neal Cassidy (Hedlund), a dashing free-spirit who divides his time between jails, pool halls, and libraries, and Marylou (Stewart), a young girl with whom they both come to enjoy a sexual relationship, who says that she wants a conventional life but engages in practices that are anything but conventional (threesomes, watching others have sex, etc.). He also shares bits and pieces about some of the colorful characters they met along the way -- among them Old Bull Lee (Oscar nominee Viggo Mortensen), Jane (Oscar nominee Amy Adams), Camille (Kirsten Dunst), Galatea (Elisabeth Moss), a jazz musician (Oscar nominee Terrence Howard), a sexual opportunist (Steve Buscemi), and the list goes on.
There are two strong points about the film that deserve particular mention.
First and foremost, the casting: Hedlund, heretofore best known for Country Strong and TRON: Legacy (both 2010), is clearly a star, a masculine guy with a megawatt smile who is able to walk into a scene and immediately takes it over; Riley has the less colorful male part, but does a nice job narrating the action in a film-noir style, just as he did in Brighton Rock (2010); and Stewart actually seems to be having fun, which is more than one can say about many of her other performances, however talented she may be. (I must say, though, that I found it surprising that she was willing to go topless for several scenes of the film, considering how closely she has guarded her privacy when it comes to other aspects of her life, and rightfully so.)
Second, the pacing: the film does manage to capture the sense of constant and hyperkinetic movement that is conveyed in the novel -- these characters are always driving, screwing, dancing, drinking, smoking, and writing, often simultaneously. (How they are able to afford to do all of this -- even if they do lie, cheat, and steal a lot -- is not entirely clear to me.)
There is, in fairness, a major criticism that one can level against the film, as well: perhaps out of a desire to be as faithful as possible to the novel, it is ultimately a bit too long and rambling, and never really makes clear why the story at its center is timeless and relevant to the youth of today.
If the film is to generate any awards attention, it will probably be in the best supporting actor category for Hedlund, though even that is a long shot. Still, for all associated with the film, it should feel like reward enough to know that they accomplished what so many others were unable to for so long.