Ever since On the Road was published, sporadic attempts to bring it to the screen — including a series of adaptations by distinguished writers (Michael Herr, Russell Banks, and Barry Gifford) and even announcements of casting calls — have, until recently, come to nothing. Meanwhile the film has been playing for over fifty years in the imaginations of Kerouac’s ardent readers, who have never been troubled by what Hollywood producers evidently saw as the book’s great drawback — the lack of a storyline with that limiting three-act structure that has been imposed upon American filmmaking for far too long. In Kerouac’s novel, it was the intensification of language and feeling, rather than plot developments, that brought the book to an ecstatic natural climax, followed by a swift, somewhat melancholy denouement. By the time Jack wrote the famous scroll version of On the Road in 1951, after five years of highly fictionalized false starts, he was already in rebellion against conventional storytelling.
When Jack was a kid spending his Saturday afternoons at the Royal Theater in Lowell, Massachusetts, the Depression films that taught him about the America he would one day explore were all in black and white — just like the only Beat film that in my estimation qualifies as art, Robert Frank’s 1959 Pull My Daisy…. By the fall of 1957 as film offers started to come in, Jack was willing to visualize On the Road’s American landscapes in Technicolor and Cinemascope, but for him the important feature of any projected adaptation remained language rather than spectacle — the brilliant zigzagging flights of riveting talk in the intimate darkness of a speeding car through which two restless, troubled, highly articulate seekers turn on and come to know each other. The secret storyline of On the Road, influenced by Jack’s admiration for Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night, was in fact Sal Paradise’s pursuit of his alter ego and spiritual brother, Dean Moriarty, in an attempt to make himself whole and rediscover the joy of being alive even in the shadow of death. “Let the dialog roll,” was Jack’s main advice to both Marlon Brando and the Twentieth Century Fox producer Jerry Wald — advice the Brazilian director Walter Salles essentially ignored.
“I had to betray the book in order to be faithful to it,” Salles announced too confidently last spring shortly before On the Road was released at Cannes. One of his earliest decisions was to junk most of the dialog Kerouac had written and replace it with clumsy approximations of Beat talk and the inept improvisations of his stars. Most of the memorable theme-bearing lines are gone from the film, including Dean Moriarty’s famous statement “We know time.” I knew something was very wrong from the moment Sal meets Dean for the first time and greets him with, “How’s it going, Cowboy.” As played by the British actor Sam Riley, Sal is a vacuous figure with little to say for himself rather than a young man with a brooding and profound understanding of all that he sees. Apparently, Salles’ screenwriter Jose Rivera wasn’t up to the challenging task of creating dialog for this character, who is more of a listener and observer than a speaker in Jack’s novel.
Salles has put his emphasis upon spectacle, giving us beautifully shot scenery in Canada and Patagonia as well as the U.S. and attractive and bankable young stars who disbrobe throughout the film at the drop of a hat. What’s gone from his version of On the Road is not only Kerouac’s language but Kerouac’s spirit. There is little trace of the spiritual search for belief that motivates the novel’s characters, and hardly any of the social context that would give moviegoers a sense of what Sal and Dean were rebelling against and even caused them to identify with all that acting out. Instead we get episode after episode of frenetic but essentially meaningless physical and sexual activity. I doubt that Jack, who brooded deeply upon the ways Hollywood “only enhanced our own wild dreams” and whose books are full of cinematic references, would have been surprised by this outcome. In 1952, standing in a crowd watching as a Joan Crawford vehicle was being filmed on a foggy San Francisco street, he presciently observed that “the movies have nothing now but great technique to show.”
In his twenties, Kerouac sporadically supported himself by synopsizing scripts for film studios and tried his own hand at screenwriting. He wrote a Christmas tearjerker that he unsuccessfully tried to sell. The abandoned novels he wrote between 1947 and 1950 provide proof that he developed considerable facility at dreaming up exactly the kind of elaborate, sagalike plots that movie producers might have gone for. But the writing he began to do in 1951 marked the resurgence of a very old idea he’d put aside but never forgotten. He was only eleven when he’d had a radical thought: instead of imitating the heroes of the movie serials he’d seen, why couldn’t he be the hero of his own movie, watching himself as he went through an entire ordinary day? By the time Jack finally succeeded in writing On the Road, he had nearly lost all interest in producing novels in which he disguised himself, created composite characters and fictionalized real events. No sooner had he finished his road novel than he felt there was far too much fiction in it and started work on the “inserts” that would lead to Visions of Cody, the book that finally fully liberated the spontaneous voice of his mature “true life” novels.
The weeks following the publication of On the Road in September 1957 were an overwhelmingly bewildering time for Jack and the old misgivings about his six-year-old novel that he kept to himself may have contributed to it. Hungry to experience every reward and aspect of his unexpected fame, Jack simultaneously wished he could go off and hide in a mountain cabin. While On the Road was being both praised to the skies and torn apart with unusual ferocity by members of the American literary establishment, he harbored a secret fear: “Tonight I’m worried that I can’t write as well as I did in 1956.”
By mid-October, the spoils of Jack’s fame included a $110,000 bid for On the Road from Warner Brothers, which included the opportunity to play Sal Paradise himself. Meanwhile, in Hollywood, Jerry Wald, the prototype for the venal producer Sammy Glick in Budd Shulberg’s novel What Makes Sammy Run, had already dispatched a memo to the story editor at 20th Century Fox. Eager to make a film about the hot subject of the “beat-up generations,” Wald, who would not come forward with an offer until January, was dredging up some sure fire ways to give On the Road “the dramatic fury” that would lead to an uplifting moralistic message (the very opposite of what Jack had intended) and “box-office attractiveness.”
The most exciting prospect, as far as Jack and his agent Sterling Lord were concerned, was a film starring Marlon Brando, who had started his own production company headed by his father, in conjunction with Paramount. By October 15, Brando, who had just gotten married, had expressed interest in the novel, but had not gotten around to actually reading it. Brando as Dean Moriarty! — the idea seemed so perfect, if not bound to work out, that Sterling Lord raised his asking price to $150,000 and turned down the offer from Warner’s, hoping Warner’s and Paramount would bid against each other. From Orlando, Florida, where he just had escaped to the quiet of his mother’s house, Jack over-confidently wrote Neal Cassady: “Brando definitely interested soon as he crawls outa bed,” forgetfully offering his old buddy the option of playing Dean.
One reason Jack wanted to work with Brando was his determination to make sure his book was adapted in a way that would “remove preconceptions of situation’ and let people rave on as they do in real life.” His dream version of On the Road resembled one of those 1930’s French movies starring his favorite actor Jean Gabin, where he felt the writers had respected the intelligence of the audience and let the actors talk “soul from soul and everybody understood it at once.”
Although they had mutual hipster acquaintances, Jack had never run into Brando himself, yet he assumed that the two of them already thought alike on how to bring new life to that “outmoded dinosaur,” American cinema. When he wrote to Brando in early November, he described himself as “an Angel returned to earth seeing it with mad eyes as it is” and sent him a copy of “the play from real life” about Neal Cassady that he had written in only 24 hours the day after he escaped from the attention he was getting in New York and arrived at his mother’s house in Florida. He proposed that Brando soon get together with him for a long talk and promised to restructure all Sal’s travels into “one vast road trip.” He not only offered to play Sal, but to show Brando exactly how to portray Dean. “I prophesy that it’s going to be the beginning of something great,” Jack wrote him. “I’m bored nowadays, and I’m looking around for something to do in the Void, anyway.”
Brando reportedly found Jack’s outpouring impressive, but he remained as elusive as the Wizard of Oz. At the end of November, Jack heard that Brando was worried there wasn’t a “solid enough” story, even though he still hadn’t opened the book. “He can go fuck himself,” Jack wrote me in December, equally furious with a 21-year-old off-Broadway boy wonder who had offered to produce his “situationless play for future people,” then complained it was too short and needed to be reworked.
By the beginning of January, Jack had given up on “these tinhorn show people.” Meanwhile, his dream of getting enough money from a movie deal to set up a trust fund for himself and his mother had come to nothing, and On the Road had only briefly been a bestseller, hovering at the very bottom of the list. Nonetheless, he was now on fire with new ideas for making “vast French” movies and had chosen his ideal collaborator, whom he called “a future Rossellini.” “Robert Frank is going to be our boy,” he announced to Allen Ginsberg, imagining scenes of “wildhaired subterraneans running off their holy movies against pockmarked walls of Bowery lofts.” (Pull My Daisy, which he made with Frank the following year, would be based on the third act of the play he had written.)
But Hollywood was far from finished with On the Road. On January 16, Jack suddenly received a “warm note” from Jerry Wald, followed by a long letter, detailing exactly how he proposed to bring the book to the screen. A grotesque inspiration had recently come to Wald — the notion that James Dean’s mythic death in a car crash could be superimposed upon the story of Dean and Sal. The two boys would meet in the Army and emerge from their wartime experiences “weary, mad, gunslinging men.” Dean would start stealing cars and lead Sal and other embittered young vets on a “rampage” across America. “Obviously, the character of Dean has to die,” Wald explained, “because he becomes the wildest of the group. It is through his death that Sal begins to understand he must not continue his walk on the wild side.'” A beautiful 17-year-old girl, Sal’s childhood sweetheart, would also help him see “the error of his ways.”
Jack took all this in and thought he could deal with it. “I want to get rich,” he explained to Allen Ginsberg, “so I can make my own movies with Robert Frank later.” He admitted that Wald wanted to turn On the Road into “a kind of Wild Ones brutal bit. But it aint as bad as I make it sound.”
He sat down to write Wald a disingenuous letter, saying he really knew nothing about making movies, but was eager to collaborate on the script and be present for the entire film-making process, since he was gathering material for a Hollywood novel that would report “fairly and truly and SADLY about that mad sad paradise of American life,” a novel that would begin “behind a gas tank” and end up “among swimming pools.” Jack assured Wald he’d agree to the Army idea, as well as the “deliberate crash” that would end Dean’s life. Helpfully laying on the sentimentality, he even suggested that the suicide take place on Christmas Eve, shortly after Dean, standing outside a lighted window in the cold, watches Sal and his bride trim their tree.
But finally he began making points he regarded as non-negotiable. The story he had written was true and “that’s why it doesn’t have movie melodrama plot structure.” The characters he had created were not hoodlums or gunslingers, but “bugged and thoughtful and curious and suddenly they explode with joy.” All they wanted was “to get high and stay high.” Above all, Wald had to understand that no film of the “sad and tender” book he had written could include any brutality. “I have often the sensation,” Jack told the producer, “that Grace is raining down upon our heads, so I would like the movie version of On the Road to suggest that basic religious emotion.”
“I guess Jerry Wald is out,” he wrote me philosophically a few months afterward. “His idea was very cruel. Fuck these killers of the world’s heart. Money’s good, but I was sent on earth for a prior reason.”
Perhaps without Kerouac to write the script, On the Road should have remained the great imaginary American movie. But the bigger loss for us may be Kerouac’s unwritten Hollywood novel. I can imagine Jack in one of those folding director’s chairs taking mental notes on what would certainly have been the inevitable betrayal of his book with the same close attention he brought to everything — even to the observation of his own crackup, five years after his destabilizing success. He was one of the great witnesses of “life as it is” in America.
Joyce Johnson is the author of The Voice Is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac and the 1983 memoir Minor Characters.
Photo by Moyan_Brenn, courtesy of Creative Commons license.