Socialist Worker

On the Road: a generation in search of a new life

Issue No. 2322

Sam Riley (left) and Garrett Hedlund star in On The Road

Sam Riley (left) and Garrett Hedlund star in On The Road

A film adaptation of Beat writer Jack Kerouac’s best-known novel, On the Road charts the journeys of a group of young people as they try, or pretend, to grow up.

The story centres on Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund). Their close, tortured connection grows through writing and travelling. The film’s cinematography conveys this sense of journey and development.

Sal’s first trip shows him hitchhiking along endless roads. Yet, moving through one off-the-wall encounter after another, the characters start to become restless.

Dean’s wife Marylou (Kristen Stewart), aged 16 as the story begins, reflects this. She confides in Sal, “I just want a house, a baby, something normal.” For her, life on the road—having no money or independence—wears thin.

Passages from the book are used beautifully. The film depicts life in 1940s America. Dean and Sal go to jazz clubs and are the only white people there.

The lives of working people almost get lost in the weed, dopamine, and alcohol-fuelled adventures of these down-at-heel artists.

But we glimpse it in the hard labour Sal does, picking cotton and loading on the railroads, to fund the next stretch of his journey. While short, these scenes are rich, showing the backbreaking labour millions did to survive.

Those people are left behind as Sal travels on, with no more than a rucksack and a notebook to take care of.

Sexism looms large. The film brings out Kerouac’s political weakness. Women appear as sexual partners and little else. But the serial womaniser Dean ends up alone.

Elements of the film are beautiful, full of movement, colour and ideas. Kerouac lovers may find it a bit flippant and fast moving. There’s not much time to dwell in the moment. But it will inspire a new generation to read Kerouac, and his Beat peers.

Siân Ruddick

On the Road opens in cinemas across the country on 12 October

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Article information

Tue 25 Sep 2012, 18:30 BST
Issue No. 2322
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