On road movies, unfilmable films, and why reading matters

Recently I read Chuck Klosterman’s collection of essays entitled Eating the Dinosaur, in which there is an essay called “Going Nowhere and Getting There Never” (the original version of this essay was published in The Believer in early 2008). In it Klosterman includes excerpts from Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles’s (The Motorcycle Diaries, Central Station) “About Road Movies”, an essay originally written for a film festival, then emailed to Klosterman in response to his interview question, and ultimately published in the New York Times Magazine. Klosterman also interviewed Gus Van Sant (Milk, Good Will Hunting), one of the producers of On the Road, which Salles is currently lensing up in Canada.

I’ve been tracking the film adaptation of On the Road for a long time. In high school, a teacher had us make a list of “unfilmable films” and On the Road was third on my list (behind A Confederacy of Dunces and The Catcher in the Rye). My teacher informed me that the movie rights for On the Road had been bouncing around Hollywood since the 1960’s, and Francis Ford Coppola had been working on an adaptation for twenty years. “The other two,” he said, “maybe never. That one, definitely someday.”

Road trip movies are among some of the most iconic in American cinema: Bonnie and Clyde, Easy Rider, Thelma & Louise to name a few. And there are movies that are road trip movies without cars—Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and O Brother Where Are Thou? I would counter Klosterman’s assertion that Americans love cars with—Americans love travel. The allure of On the Road is undeniable—it’s a road trip story, the road trip story, the road trip that launched a thousand road trips. And as Klosterman points out in his essay, Americans love cars and they love driving, and On the Road is really just a couple guys in a car, driving places.

The original title of Klosterman’s essay is “What’s the difference between a road movie and movie that just happens to have roads in it?” That’s the difference—travel. A road trip movie is a movie about the specific act of traveling, regardless of where, how, or why. A road movie is any movie with roads in it, like Mad Max, which certainly has a lot of roads in it, but the act of travel is not the point or purpose of the movie. Mad Max is a justice vs. revenge drama in which a bunch of shit blows up and has many car chases. Similarly, while Salles and Van Sant may disagree about the point of Thelma and Louise, it is most definitely a road trip movie. The story revolves around the women travelling. Stuff blows up only to aid their goal of reaching Mexico.

Salles asserts that the central conflict in a road trip movie is an inherently internal one, that what the experience of what the characters feel trumps the traditional three-act format of a screenplay.  His concept of the road trip as narrative is one of internal realization and transformation, not action. When I first met Salles he was in the US promoting The Motorcycle Diaries, which was billed as a Che Guevara biopic, but was really a road trip movie about a couple young guys touring South America on a motorcycle. After a screening of the film, Salles was confronted by a man who said, “Hey, that movie was pretty boring for being about Che. I mean, nothing happened.” Salles was palpably disappointed by this. In fact, everything happened, but none of it was active-happening, it was the passive-happening of ideas and feelings. The image that stays with me today from The Motorcycle Diaries is Che-before-he-was-Che sitting among the ruins of Macchu Picchu with his friend Alberto, discussing revolution. At one point, Che-before-he-was-Che turns to Alberto and says, “A revolution without guns? That will never work.”

In that moment, no, nothing happens. Two men are sitting, reading and writing, occasionally talking. But in that moment, a man who will change history plants his feet in an idea, which will become a philosophy, which will become a revolution. That moment is everything. When Salles was tapped to direct On the Road, that was the moment I remembered and it was the first time I thought, Maybe if anyone could film it, it would be Walter Salles. The next time I saw Salles, he called On the Road an “entirely possible film”, even though there was nothing at the time to indicate he would entirely possibly be making it.

In contrast to Salles’s assertion that road trip movies are exempt from three-act storytelling, Van Sant (who was once attached to direct On the Road himself), says that “going from point A to point B is kind of the obvious criteria”, which probably explains why Van Sant ended up losing On the Road to Salles. The destination in On the Road is not the point, the travelling is. A film adaptation of On the Road will work whether Sal and Dean ever “get anywhere” or not. The only requirement is that Sal and Dean travel together. But I see Van Sant’s point about needing a destination. I think On the Road is unfilmable not because it’s boring or because “nothing happens”, but because as a narrative, it never gets anywhere. The difference between a book and a movie is that a book doesn’t need a destination. It isn’t necessary in a book, where the act of reading ideas and thoughts can be the only raison d’etre for the work (see also: Franny & Zooey by JD Salinger).

The joy of On the Road is reading. It, like A Confederacy of Dunces, has everything you could want to make a decent film adaptation—interesting characters, interesting events, interesting periods of introspection—but also like Dunces, what gives On the Road its impact, the reason it matters more than fifty years after it was published, is something intangible about reading it. Everything I like about On the Road relates to the physical and mental act of reading. I like the narrator’s voice. I like how the words look on the page (speaking now of the “scroll” version of the text). I like how the sentences are formed, or not formed, depending on your perspective. I like the thoughts I have while I read it. I like how sometimes I stop reading and think about what I’ve just read.

In a film adaptation, none of those things will translate. It’s the difference between Lord of the Rings and every attempt to adapt Kurt Vonnegut. Lord of the Rings are complex stories which are well written, but at the end of the day, they’re about stuff that happens. There’s a lot of stuff happening in LOTR. This character does or says something and more stuff happens. Those kinds of books make for excellent adaptations because stuff happening usually lends itself to cinematic values like visuals and story arcs (see also: Harry Potter, The Millennium Trilogy). But Vonnegut is more abstract. His books are usually first-person narratives interlaced with a lot of thoughts and ideas. Vonnegut’s voice is that intangible that can never be translated to the big screen, and it is why adaptations of his works always fall flat (see also: Tom Robbins, Ayn Rand).

Jack Kerouac’s narrative voice cannot be replicated. It has to be read. Sal Paradise can be recreated and I’ll give Sam Riley (13, Control) the benefit of the doubt that he’ll turn in a fine performance as Sal. And if anyone can make On the Road an interesting and maybe even entertaining film, it would be Walter Salles. But the one thing Salles and Riley can’t do is give us the experience of reading On the Road. They can’t give us Kerouac’s voice. And for that, the movie will always be less. Hopefully good in its own right, but it will always be less. Some things just have to be read.

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6 thoughts on “On road movies, unfilmable films, and why reading matters

  1. Ellie

    This is a great article – only thing that irks me is that you referred to this as “super-fucking-awesome news” for months and now you say you’ve always thought it was “unfilmable.” …

    1. It was awesome news for an actress who hung with this project for years and lobbied for it and wanted it and sweated for it. Doesn’t change the fact that’s a really difficult adaptation of a dense and esoteric text. My hope is that, by committing to this quality of filmmakers and actors, they’ll get something interesting and compelling out if, but it’s an uphill climb. The narrative voice was the best part of the book and that simply doesn’t translate to film.

  2. Gabs

    I agree that the book will always be better but if anyone can make it a good film its walter salles. It can still be good. I didnt know about Gus Van Sant almost getting it. I prefer Salles for this. They made a good choice.

  3. Layla

    Hi Sarah, i really enjoyed reading your article and the one by Walter from NYT. I must say that I have a lot of faith in Walter Salles and the whole crew behind it (Coppola, Rivera, etc). The script, from what i’ve seen so far, looks like a fine adaptation from the book, although we know it’s impossible to translate the complete narrative of Kerouac to screen. Walter has been working in this adaptation for years and he has made wonderful and captivating road movies in the past. He knows in its core what it takes to make a good, entertaining road movie. I have nothing but positive feelings about this project.

  4. Pingback: Harry Shearer, Fats Domino, The Big Easy, Confederacy of Dunces – I Cannot Eascape New Orleans :The Longtail Music Catalog

  5. Pingback: Chuck Klosterman MTSU 3/17/09 Part 1 | Echelon-Us

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