‘One all-inclusive trip’
On the Road, IFC Films, 2012
Kerouac was susceptible to film—a sucker for its promise of riches as well as its flickering poetry—and he imagined an iconic adaptation of On the Road. Not long after the book’s publication, in September 1957, he wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to buy the book and get it made:
Dear Marlon, I’m praying that you’ll buy ON THE ROAD and make a movie of it. Don’t worry about structure, I know how to compress and re-arrange the plot a bit to give perfectly acceptable movie-type structure: making it into one all-inclusive trip instead of the several voyages coast-to-coast in the book.
The letter imagines Brando playing Dean Moriarty and Kerouac himself playing Sal Paradise, offering to introduce Brando to Dean “in real life.” The person he was talking about, Neal Cassady, was, for Kerouac, the perfect postwar all-action hero and man of the moment. He was Byron in blue jeans and a crook out of Jean Genet. For Kerouac he was also the brother who died and the father they never found. “Fact, we can go visit him in Frisco,” wrote Kerouac to Brando, “still a real frantic cat but nowadays settled down with his final wife saying the Lord’s Prayer with his kiddies at night.”
Carolyn Cassady, that “final wife,” saw a lot of the frantic cat and very little of the family man, but that story would wait the better part of fifty years to be told. In the meantime, Brando passed on the film and the Beats themselves became the material. There are a few vital moments when modern creators have come to seem more interesting than what they create: in American literature, we could argue such a condition for Hemingway, for Dorothy Parker, and for Scott and Zelda. They all crossed the line between the making of fiction and the business of constituting a fiction oneself. Movies have been made about each of these writers, yet Kerouac and the Beats, more than any school or group or tradition in American letters, have spawned a miasma of retellings in every genre.
Marlon Brando in a poster for The Wild One, 1953
On the Road, as a movie, might have worked brilliantly in 1957 if Brando had accepted the challenge. It might have tapped into the same energy the book did—the same sources that fueled Brando’s The Wild One (1953), the James Dean vehicle Rebel Without a Cause (1955), and The Blackboard Jungle (1955), with Sidney Poitier. These were films that married uncertainty about the old, pre-war order to new feelings about sex; they braided fresh notions of freedom with antisocial frolics, wrapping them inside the brand-new vapors of rock ’n’ roll and the teenager. Just imagine On the Road as directed by, say, Elia Kazan, adapted by William Inge, starring Marlon Brando and a suddenly disheveled Elvis Presley. It might then, if done well, have been part of the now slightly camp-seeming social and sexual uplift that came in time to awaken the 1960s.
But that didn’t happen. Instead, it was the lives of those involved in the Beat Generation that had cultural reality. The movies found that the best subject wasn’t really the books at all but the people who wrote them. That might seem normal nowadays: the personalization of everything is now total. But the Beats, oddly, were probably part of the process by which fictionality became entwined with everyday selfhood. I mean, at least the world got to see Gary Cooper in A Farewell to Arms (1932) before we came to the horrid bio-fiction of Hemingway and Gellhorn (2012). But with the Beats it was always about their lives.