FOR filmmakers trying to capture the spirit of the Beats, there has always been the pressure — stated or not — of their work living up to the legends. Survivors of the movement, and the scholars who chronicled their every move, are certain to cast an unforgiving eye.
It has been no different for Walter Salles, the first director to finally wrestle Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” to the big screen more than five decades after its publication caused a literary sensation and launched a thousand road trips, not to mention innumerable road movies.
Mr. Salles’s answer was to endear himself to virtually every living Beat poet, artist and philosopher with a stake in the book’s legacy while literally retracing Kerouac’s crisscrossing of the country with a Super 8 camera. In other words, if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em.
Among the Kerouac contemporaries Mr. Salles interviewed were the poets Gary Snyder, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, Diane di Prima and Amiri Baraka, as well as the Kerouac biographers Gerald Nicosia and Barry Gifford, who served as consultants on the film. The process consumed five of the eight years that the director has been toiling on the project, which had its premiere this month at the Cannes Film Festival and is expected to reach theaters in the fall.
“I was well aware that my passion for the book was not sufficient to justify launching into an adaptation straight away,” Mr. Salles, who is compiling the footage into a documentary, said by e-mail. “In fact, making the feature film ceased to be my main concern at the time. Understanding and getting to know these people better became my main goal.”
It was the kind of dogged determination that won over Mr. Gifford, who took a stab at the material in the mid-’90s, first with the director Francis Ford Coppola, credited as executive producer of the new film, then with Gus Van Sant. “I know that Walter certainly did his due diligence and read everything available, including my screenplay,” Mr. Gifford said. “So I think his understanding of it all was proper and well placed and certainly well intentioned.”
“On the Road” completes the holy trinity of Beat masterpieces that have confounded filmmakers for several years, including David Cronenberg’s wildly fanciful take on William S. Burroughs’s “Naked Lunch,” from 1991, and Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman’s 2010 docudrama of Allen Ginsberg’s “Howl.” The Beats’ core group of characters were so intertwined in their heyday that “Howl,” “Road” and “Lunch” were published within three years of each other, and all three film versions feature an overlapping cast of characters, many of whom will be seen in “Kill Your Darlings,” due in 2013 and based on the murder of David Kammerer by Lucien Carr, a key member of the original New York Beats.
With “Howl,” every line of dialogue was based on public record, whether lifted from the poem, letters, interviews with Ginsberg or transcripts from the obscenity trial that followed the poem’s publication. Though it tanked at the box office, the film, starring James Franco as Ginsberg, received generally favorable reviews. Writing in The New York Times, A. O. Scott awarded it high marks: “ ‘Howl’ does something that sounds simple until you consider how rarely it occurs in films of any kind. It takes a familiar, celebrated piece of writing and makes it come alive.”
Mr. Cronenberg tried the opposite tack on “Naked Lunch,” the most genre-defying of the Beat classics, by taking extreme dramatic license. For the Criterion Collection DVD package, he talked about fusing his own sensibility with that of Burroughs and creating a third one “that neither he nor I would have done on our own.”
Mr. Cronenberg, incorporated incidents from Burroughs’s life, including the infamous “William Tell” routine when he accidentally shot and killed his wife, Joan Vollmer (also depicted in the straight-to-video 2000 movie, “Beat”). Burroughs is seen on the set, a seemingly willing participant, allowing the director to say “I got my blessings from the pope.”
In dealing with the Beats, that validation appears to be crucial in warding off later public criticism. When John Byrum wrote and directed “Heart Beat” (1980), based on Carolyn Cassady’s memoir “Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal,” Mr. Ginsberg, who died in 1997, refused the use of his name in the movie. Nick Nolte played Neal Cassady, Kerouac’s confidant and muse, with a kind of mean streak — more cruel cad than holy goof.
“Allen just didn’t like the whole idea of us doing it,” Mr. Nolte said at the time. “He felt the script didn’t capture it right. But I turn around and say to Allen Ginsberg: ‘I have a relationship with Jack Kerouac myself. I read his book “On the Road” in 1959. He represents something to me, too. So I have a right to interpret Neal Cassady myself.’ ”
But the resulting film did not hit the mark — writing in The Times, Vincent Canby called it “solemnly self-important and banal.” And even though Ms. Cassady spent time with the cast during the filming of “Heart Beat,” she suggested that Mr. Salles, with whom she also consulted, not see the film during his own preparations.
It’s no coincidence that “On the Road” is being made by the same international creative team — including the director, who is Brazilian, and the Puerto Rican screenwriter José Rivera — behind “The Motorcycle Diaries,” about another road trip undertaken by a thoughtful introvert (in this case Che Guevara) with a rambunctious traveling mate. Mr. Coppola explained that early on in his history with “On the Road,” which he first optioned in 1978, “I decided I wasn’t the right man for it,” and that “it wasn’t until the advent of Walter Salles that we felt enough of the elements came together so that we could make it happen.”
In “On the Road,” Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s alter ego, is a writer itching to experience adventure, with Dean Moriarty, modeled after Cassady, as the driving force. Sam Riley, cast as Paradise, was aware of the impossible expectations of such a project from the get-go. “The first character I ever played in a movie was an iconic British singer” — Ian Curtis of Joy Division in “Control” — “with an equally zealous fan base,” he said. “So, in a weird way, it’s all I know — to set myself up for a shooting, to some extent.”
Mr. Rivera’s screenplay hews closely to the book, while also using elements excised from the infamous scroll on which Kerouac banged out most of his raw material. Mr. Gifford’s approach drew from Kerouac’s first novel, “The Town and the City,” as well as Kerouac’s book of essays, “Lonesome Traveler.”
Russell Banks, whose novels-turned-movies include “The Sweet Hereafter” and “Affliction,” also tried his hand at a script for Mr. Coppola seven or eight years ago. He views “On the Road” as a metaphor for “the end of American innocence” and felt the script needed the framework of the turbulent events of the late ’60s, “on the other side of disillusionment that those characters didn’t know was coming,” he said by phone.
To do this, Banks bookended his story with an incident from his own life, when the 45-year-old Kerouac blew into Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1967, two years before he died, and spent a week at Mr. Banks’s house, boozing it up, telling stories and generally causing a ruckus. “He was at that point very far gone,” Mr. Banks recalled. “He was ill physically and mentally, too.” The interpretation that finally made it to the screen is set in the late ’40s and ends in 1951. It doesn’t shy away from the story’s homoerotic underpinnings or Moriarty’s activities as hustler, adulterer and thief. He also exhibits the physical prowess of a college athlete, the sexual swagger of a midcentury Casanova and the bighearted optimism of a saint.
“Neal was a fascinating character for a lot of people,” Mr. Gifford said, “and other people just went the other way as soon as they saw him.”
In the end it was John Cassady, the son of Neal, who reminded Mr. Salles that “On the Road” was a story of men and women in their youth. It was a time when, Mr. Salles said, “they had no idea of what they would become.”