I’m watching Walter Salles’s adaptation of On the Road, trying to remember what exactly it felt like to read Kerouac’s novel for the first time when I was fifteen. There’s a nice little montage after Sal and Dean and Marylou leave Old Bull Lee’s farm in Louisiana that comes close. They’ve picked up two hitch-hikers, and a series of long shots showing the landscape they’re passing through counterpoints several close-ups. Thunderheads lowering down to the horizon, rain balling up on the windshield and slipping off, dust pluming out from the car’s rear tires. There then follows a shot of Marylou, striped in gold by late afternoon light slanting through the car window. She turns at the sound of one of the hitchhikers singing a mournful song. The actor who plays Marylou, Kristen Stewart, gives the singer a look which at first could be taken as irritation, but then gradually transforms: from interest to lips-parted absorption to a flicker around the eyes that verges on tears. The next shot is on the Golden Gate bridge, which is drained of color by a thick white fog. The driver, Dean, looks into the rear view mirror, where Marylou’s face is framed, her features blanched grey and white. Dean is going to abandon her.
The quality that Salles adds to Kerouac’s story amounts almost to an extra dimension: the subjectivity of women. In the novel women are relatively flat characters who function primarily as sexual playthings, romantic entanglements, and nurturing/suffocating maternal figures– in other words, the standard repertoire of female types culled from the masculine literary imagination. (The most gothic of these women is poor crazy Joan, who sweeps the trees at night with a broom, trying to dislodge the creatures her mind has put there.) Salles’s film improves upon Kerouac’s novel because it gives greater insight into the damage wrought by Dean’s charismatic psychopathy. Camille, Dean’s second wife, kicks him out when she realizes that regardless of many sacrifices she makes or how many obligations he accumulates, he cannot sustain empathy and concern for others. The last shots of the film resonate with anyone who knows the circumstances of the death of the historical personage, Neal Cassady, who inspired the character Dean Moriarty. The camera jolts along after Dean as he stumbles down desert railroad tracks. From the open road– which offers a sense of elation and freedom– to the tracks, which are always only going in a single direction.