Certain written works notoriously avoid being turned into successful films: “War and Peace,” “Gravity’s Rainbow,” basically anything by William Faulkner (exempting the screenplay he wrote for “The Big Sleep”) and “The Great Gatsby,” as Baz Luhrmann’s attempt this year recently reconfirmed.
Jack Kerouac has been part of this sequestration – until now. The past 12 months have seen the release of two Kerouac adaptations: Walter Salles’ “On the Road” in December of last year, followed by Michael Polish’s “Big Sur” this Friday. Additionally, “Kill Your Darlings,” which opened earlier this month, is based on the true story of a murder within Kerouac’s proto-Beat clique during the early stirrings of that movement.
It’s understandable why Kerouac has eluded cinematic adaptation. He was king of the Beats, immortalized in his own characters Sal Paradise and Jack Duluoz, founder of a literary movement, creator of an aesthetic style, and perpetrator of a physically and spiritually ecstatic lifestyle. The enormity of his output is intimidating: He authored more than 20 works of fiction, five works of non-fiction and hundreds of poems. He only lived to be 47.
Unlike “Pollock” or “Basquiat,” both well-executed film synopses of the life of the artist in question, each of these new Kerouac films struggles to capture a single one of his works or life events. His stream-of-consciousness, soul-vomit writing style proposes a major translational challenge, and ostensibly, a fair share of trial-and-error is required before his persona is adequately realized.
Many great novels have gone on to become enormous cinematic successes: “To Kill a Mockingbird,” “Out of Africa,” “Atonement”…the list goes on and on. However, Beat writing uses highly specific details to create an allegorical framework on which to hang all the spiritual, interpersonal and personal experiences that the writing is actually about in its quest for human truth. The visible world is the backbone for all that is unseen, which doesn’t make it especially filmable. And Kerouac specifically writes in this style with such a high frequency – so much motion and insatiable restlessness – that readers are verbally intoxicated rather than hooked with the cliffhangers of a linear plot line. Needless to say, reading Kerouac is very different than reading, say, Harper Lee.
Hence the challenge: When it comes to visualizing written works, maintaining a prolonged sense of urgency is much more difficult than filming a traditional narrative arc. In Salles’ film, the director falls back on gushes of sex and drugs to achieve the same frantic pulse, and he never really find out what all the juicy drama means in the mind of Sal Paradise – played by a slightly shy, all-observing Garrett Hedlund, who lacks the soul-searching madness of Kerouac’s alias narrator.
Conversely, in “Big Sur,” Polish focuses almost exclusively on Kerouac’s inner journey as he deals with the demons of self-doubt that accompany his growing fame after the release of “On The Road,” turning to alcohol as a refuge. The film is nearly devoid of dialogue, with almost every scene containing voiceover passages from the novel, spoken in poetic cadences by actor Jean-Marc Barr. The filmmakers overdo this tactic as they struggle to balance Kerouac’s mental and physical experiences, and the result often feels like a patient’s therapy session set to scenery snapshots with the slightly washed-out Valencia Instagram filter layered on top.
“Kill Your Darlings” is certainly the most successful of the three recent Kerouac depictions, primarily because it’s not saddled with the task of reformulating Beat prose. Rather, it dramatizes a formative period in the lives of Kerouac and his budding erudite friends – mainly Allen Ginsberg, Lucian Carr, and William S. Burroughs.
Director John Krokidas succeeds in showing the fledgling anti-establishment sentiments that nourished their literary movement. Ginsberg is the protagonist but largely remains the quiet observer when in the presence of Kerouac, painted as a charmingly exuberant ex-jock whose worldliness is as enviable as it is endearing.
And that raises another question: How did Kerouac go from this college hunk to a hitchhiking wallflower to a near-complete degenerate? When putting the three films together, there’s no character alignment. Kerouac feels like three different people entirely. This probably isn’t entirely off-point, as his personality and its manifestation in his writing were in a constant state of flux rather than conforming to any traditional structure of a professional career. Think Pablo Picasso or David Bowie: Kerouac’s creative output lacked a consistent embodiment, freeing directors to explore different sides of him depending on the period. But he’s too much of a chameleon to grasp in 90 to 120 minutes of fictionalized storytelling.
Perhaps he’s best suited for an unconventional, multi-actor interpretation akin to Todd Haynes’ quasi-biopic on Bob Dylan, “I’m Not There.” Similarly, in order to adapt other heavily stylized written works, directors have had to take them from the hands of the author and re-fashion them into something of their own. (Think Blake Edwards creating an almost entirely new plot for his adaptation of Truman Capote’s “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”) The resulting films end up being first accredited to the directors and principal actors, not the authors – one artist’s work as seen through the eyes of another.
Kerouac is among the set of authors worshipped by readers for changing their lives and shaping their worldviews. Sure, these works are often token classroom literature, but their lasting impact exists inside of readers’ heads. No artistic medium can be easily translated into the craft and shape of another. But if Kerouac’s appeal exists in the mind of the reader, the appeal of these new movies has a similar subjective quality. If nothing else, the new films raise a final question: Would you rather see “On The Road” as Kerouac saw it, how a director sees it, or how you see it yourself?