Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” is a testosterone-laden work of writing, the mad adventures of literate but lusting men in search of women and the wider world alike. One famous inspiration was a breathless letter Neal Cassady, the model for Dean Moriarty, wrote to Kerouac about scoring with a girl he met on a Greyhound bus. As a turn-on that sparked the writing of his “true-life” novel, women are both central to Kerouac’s spontaneous telling and marginalized to a dismissive degree appropriate for the times.
But a strange thing happens in the new film adaptation written and directed by the “Motorcycle Diaries” team of Jose Rivera and Walter Salles, which IFC Films opened in theaters Friday. Though still secondary to the narrative, the women have gained in significance and impact in key ways that speak both to Salles’ cinematic approach to storytelling and to the expectations of today’s film audiences.
For just one example, Kristen Stewart, as the boys’ teenaged fellow-traveler Marylou, gyrates madly at a beat soiree to the sound of “Salt Peanuts” in the new movie. Sporting saddle shoes and anklets, she sweats as her clothes begin to drape off against an equally entranced dancing boy. In those frantic moments, you could easily think: the film is about her.
Kerouac’s book might have made the ultimate buddy movie, a mid-century hipster “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” featuring the cross-country antics of Kerouac’s autobiographically influenced Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty. When Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles was tapped in 2004 to direct this elusive project after decades of misfires, you could feel the machine in motion: Salles did “Motorcycle Diaries,” so it’s a no-brainer — again, two guys take the open road!
Yet while Salles hews close to the episodic Kerouac novel, making a cohesive tableau of colorful set pieces, his Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) are often overshadowed by the movie’s women characters in modes of undress and sexual play. But while some critics may protest — hey, this is Kerouac, not Henry Miller! — Salles, noted for his copious research, did his due diligence. In preparation, the filmmakers made their own cross-country journey to interview surviving female Beats, among them Joyce Johnson, Hettie Jones, Carolyn Cassady and Diane DiPrima, which may explain why so much of the script is girl-oriented.
No fewer than seven memoirs by women married to or connected with the central men informed Rivera’s script. Banking on the marketability of Kerouac’s name or with personal axes to grind, wives Edie Parker and Joan Haverty wrote books. At least one salacious study posits Kerouac as a cad, pushing the women into misguided behavior. The best and most evocative book, Johnson’s “Minor Characters,” set the high bar for a history of the women of the Beat era. Kerouac’s girlfriend at the time “On the Road” was published in 1957 to become an overnight bestseller, Johnson is his most recent biographer as well, with “The Voice is All: The Lonely Victory of Jack Kerouac.”
Not one to rely on Kerouac’s singular take on events, Salles used these other truth-tellers to start the process of teasing out the author’s fiction from fact. Digging deeper, he brought the key women to the set. At a luncheon in New York in 2010 for her film “All Good Things,” Kirsten Dunst, who plays Camille in “On the Road,” said she regretted leaving the production when her scenes were completed because Carolyn Cassady was coming to hang out with the actors. Dunst did not want to miss spending time with the Beat legend who authored “Off the Road” and “Heartbeat,” which focuses on Carolyn’s ménage a trois in San Francisco with her husband Neal and Jack. Yes, in the movie Camille plays the martyr, kicking Dean/Neal out in one breath and begging for his return in another. But Dunst said at the recent New York premiere for “On the Road” that she did not think this a period detail; women go through the same disappointments and dilemmas today.