I never read Kerouac’s On The Road, but only really knew about it from overheard discussions and comment s from friends. I’ve always regarded it as a statement of a wild generation, glorifying a excess of drugs, sex and partying in a search for meaning in non-conformity. I don’t know if it is totally faithful to the book in its themes, but I was quite surprised by what I saw in the movie. I’ve picked up a copy of the book.
The feeling I got from the film was far from a glorification of excess. There’s a lot of excess in the book, with many party, drug and sex scenes. And yet, throughout these scenes you always get the feeling from the actors that they are inauthentic. They look at each other as if saying “Is this enough fun yet?” or “Do I look like I’m burning with meaning?” Near the beginning of the story, Sal, the main character through whose eyes the story unfolds (and who is actually Kerouac) says that he is looking for people who are burning with meaning and intensity. It is like Jack London’s credo, “I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.” He finds such a person in Dean, and follows him worshipfully in their travels across the continent.
And yet Dean, the supposed pinnacle of this life of burning intensity, seems hollow and deeply flawed. At one point he talks about sitting for hours with a gun to his head contemplating suicide, -an experience which I’m sure provided its own deep intensity. Dean uses, discards and hurts people all around him in his pursuit of self centred gratification. His version of this quest for meaning is all too selfish and very immature. In the end Dean encounters Sal on a street, as a broken and aimless person, still trying to cling to that old intensity and draw Sal back into one more road trip. But Sal has matured and is in the company of friends, dressed in fine clothing and on his way to the theatre. Sal has clearly found a more stable and ultimately more satisfying and happy form of life purpose, which embraces some level of conformity and self control. The contrast with the pathetic character of Dean is inescapable.
I don’t see On The Road as a glorification of excess. It is perhaps a description of a quest for meaning which may require certain experiences, -although Sal (Kerouac) always seems to hover at the periphery of these experiences. If anything I see it as a work putting excess in perspective and dealing more with a maturation away from a self centred view of life. I think it points to the limitations and pitfalls of excess. Is excess a necessary stage to find meaning? I’m not even sure that On The Road is saying that. Too many people are hurt by Dean, and Sal comes out the best and happiest in spite of having not been as wild as Dean.
The film was exceptionally well produced, with great acting and an engaging screenplay.
I would give this film a B+ or perhaps even an A-.