As Usual, the Book is Better

Jack Kerouac. Courtesy Tom Palumbo.

I’m sort of straying from the reading path here and offering my two cents on the recent film adaptation of On the Road. As one of my favorite books (and given the fact that I was a Kerouac junkie in my twenties), it was with an odd, eager trepidation that I looked forward to viewing the thing. That low-grade sense of dread came from the conviction that this book simply should not be filmed– not necessarily because it’s some sacrosanct piece of mid-century Americana, but because I can’t think of a way to do cinematic justice to that weird mix of poetics, action, and camaraderie.

As expected, the celluloid (OK, I guess it’d be more accurate to say “digital”) version was a pale reproduction of the pen-n-paper original. Much of the casting was weird (except for Viggo Mortensen as Bull Lee/William Burroughs) and the dialogue stilted (again, you have another problem there with the transition to film: actually making moving, visible characters talk like a book is a risky venture). What I will say the project added to all the written encapsulations of the Beats and those who tried to follow in their footsteps is some evidence of the toll all these men and their kicks took on the women involved with them– and the ways in which a solid portion of these partiers didn’t really take women as much more than vessels to attend to their sexual and sometimes financial needs. The film did do a good job of bringing some of these ambiguities to the fore, so I’ll at least applaud it for that.

Still, I’d advise anyone to stick with the book.

Other works that fall into the hands-off category, where movie directors are concerned? Hopscotch (Julio Cortázar), Infinite Jest (David Foster Wallace), The Corrections (Jonathan Franzen– although I think this one’s already under contract, or has had the rights bought, something). Anyone have any other thoughts on books that should stay books?


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