Jack Kerouac's seminal mission statement for the Beat Generation has always been deemed unfilmable. It's a period piece without an easy-to-follow narrative, whereby the characters' quest for self-discovery and meaning are captured in Keraouc's descriptive, free-flow writing style more than any identifiable plot point. Francis Ford Coppola bought the film rights in 1979, and for 25 years, seemingly every A-list actor and director were attached at various points, but the project always fell through. After enlisting Walter Salles (no stranger to "the road movie") and scribe Jose Rivera, we finally have the long-awaited film adaptation -- and, as one might expect, it's largely directionless and unfocused.
There are plenty of reasons why this story is so hard to adapt (one being that it's so personal to so many, that it's probably difficult to tell it from an objective point of view without smacking of self-adulation) is the same reason why The Catcher and The Rye will never be made into a film: the problem with depicting these existentially provocative iconoclasts (your Dean Moriarty's, Holden Caulfield's, Christopher McCandless', etc.) is that without a strong commitment to contextualizing the sociopolitical climates of their plights, these characters, from a cinematic perspective, can come off as bored, snotty adolescents just looking to have a good time, rather than intelligent, insightful young men who are bound by their commitment to reject the conformity of middle-class values and societal norms that suffocate us all. Instead, the aim tends to be trying to get inside these characters' heads to capture their streams of consciousness as a means of development. It's a justifiable approach, but how long can a film sustain itself without allowing adequate time to reveal WHY these characters feel this way?
For example, the film does an admirable job of depicting the relationship between Dean (terrifically played by Garrett Hedlund) and Sal (Sam Riley) and their coming of age, but this is post-World War II America -- there's little to no mention of the Cold War, of McCarthyism, of the Truman Doctrine -- a pivotal time in America's history were rigid conformity was not only encouraged, it was required. For a group of kids to commit to debunking and challenging these ideals, at a time in life where one is supposed to graciously let go of one's adolescence in the name of maturation is quite astonishing. Here, in the film, you'll see lots of sex, drugs and rock and roll, but not enough fleshed out ideas.
There are moments in Kerouac's novel that are existentially provocative, even profound. Salles and company clearly poured their hearts into the film, and while there are a few bright spots (Hedlund's performance comes to mind), a book of this magnitude deserves better. On The Road, the novel, is a landmark of American literature. On The Road, the film, falls short.