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by Gabrielle Lipton
October 29, 2013 11:10 AM
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Is Jack Kerouac Unfilmable? 'Big Sur' is the Latest to Raise the Question

"Big Sur."

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.

Would you rather see "On The Road" as Kerouac saw it, how a director sees it, or how you see it yourself?

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?

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8 Comments

  • demophilus | October 31, 2013 5:05 PMReply

    A few things: first off, I wouldn't call Kerouac "unfilmable". His spontaneous prosody has the immediacy of good cinema; some of the sequences in the novel ON THE ROAD are essentially movies.

    IMHO, a major problem with adapting Kerouac is his Proustian aspect. That's more formless than his action sequences, less kinetic and cinematic -- it lives on a page, not in sound and vision. I mean, would you try to adapt VISIONS OF CODY?

    Salles tried to reference the Proustian aspect in his adaptation as the volume of Proust Dean gives Sal, but it fell a little flat -- it was almost a prop. But it works, after a fashion: it's carrying Proust around that ultimately gives Sal the courage to write up his years of notes.

    The second problem with adapting Kerouac is, the source material is beloved by its disciples and adherents -- you can never live up to fandom's expectations. IMHO, that's why Salles' adaptation got such a tepid response. Everyone who's read and loved the book has their own movie in their head, and their own ideas about what the one on the screen should be.

    As the old saw goes, "Bad book, good movie; good book, bad movie." Creatively speaking, it's much safer to adapt something mediocre, plotty and shallow. Think FIRST BLOOD, or THE BOURNE ULTIMATUM. It's hard to do justice to a truly good book.

    Finally, the Salles adaptation got a bad rap. IMHO, the way to look at it is as a companion piece to THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES -- two movies about revolutionaries who hit the road to find themselves, or die trying. Spoiler alert -- they do find themselves, and die young.

    Apart from the thematic resonance, Salles' adaptation was beautifully shot. The sequences shot in Canada and South America, while intended to show US roads as they might have been in the 40s, implicitly conveyed the novel's international appeal. People all over the world love ON THE ROAD, because they want to hit the road, and find a better place or way of being.

    Maybe ON THE ROAD is ultimately a book about landscapes -- external and internal -- and how we traverse them. Maybe you can convey that in a movie. You just can't convey it in a plot.

  • Stephen Lourdes | October 30, 2013 4:56 PMReply

    "How did Kerouac go from this college hunk to a hitchhiking wallflower to a near-complete degenerate?"

    Some might think it's the other way around. Another view perhaps is the jock is the degenerate, the hitchhiking wallflower is a spiritual walker and the near-complete degenerate is an enlightened being who simply doesn't give a hoot, has a damn good time being themselves, not running around harming anyone.

    A question in regard to Luhrmann's Gatsby, how are you figuring failure Gabrielle? It didn't with the audience which the box reflects at a $105M budget and $348M return to date.

    Can an iconic work of fiction or non-fiction, our greatest novels be put to screen is the posit or am I reading too much between the lines and are you (almost) saying all to lay off, in a manner of speaking? It was pretty much on the cards the attitude with some certainly out there with the knives being sharpened before principal photography of Baz's Gatsby, for example. Fortunately the audience thought the knives rather dull and had a good time anyway with the picture.

    Ten directors will give you ten completely different films not just from prose, but anything. I do believe though, the movie, unless it's a doco, should be and not just philosophically but is always practically different to a novel being a new art form from the source. In short, if you're expecting a mirror of the novel, then why see the film?

  • Jesse | October 29, 2013 8:05 PMReply

    Hedlund was great in Salles's ON THE ROAD, but otherwise it was absolutely dreadful and completely missed the mark, especially with Sam Riley. It was really indefensible in my opinion how he managed to drain any and all energy from the material as well as make the characters so flat and uninteresting (again, Hedlund excepted). Michael Polish's BIG SUR, however, is spot on the rhythm, poetry, and themes of the novel. Barr is 10,000 times better as Keruoac than Sam Riley is even at his best. The two couldn't be more different - one was completely rote, the other completely innovative. If you haven't seen BIG SUR, I highly recommend it, especially if you were disappointed by the abysmal ON THE ROAD adaptation.

  • D.J. | October 29, 2013 3:08 PMReply

    Just a correction: Sal Paradise was played by Sam Riley in "On the Road." Garret Hedlund played Dean Moriarty.

  • DK | October 29, 2013 1:04 PMReply

    Kerouac's prose is wild and spontaneous,while film is controlled and somewhat rigidly structured. It would take quite a group of daring original artists to successfully bring Kerouac to the screen. The kind that there are not that many of anymore.

  • Larry | October 29, 2013 11:55 AMReply

    Totally disagree. On the Road was in no means perfect but it was a beautiful and hauntingly sad adaptation of Kerouac's novel. Hedlund was titanic, a giant in it, portraying a multilayered, subtle version of Neal Cassady, not the artificial, crazy stereotype Kerouac invented in the book. They researched the real life of Neal, hence the difference from the impression people have from the book. You got it totally wrong sir.

    Kill Your Darlings is more acceptable for the film bloggers because it was not an adaptation. It just tells a story about them in an academic manner, there is no comparison possible with any book and hence no predictable whinings or boring rants from critics.

  • dk | October 29, 2013 1:01 PM

    Lol, so the film actually improved upon the book? You're delusional.

  • brace | October 29, 2013 12:45 PM

    I agree about Hedlund and On the Road - great performance (I can't think of a better actor for this role) in perfectly respectable movie. I don't see how an adaptation of that novel could have been much better. I think it was as good as possible.