Movie Review: On The Road (2012)

On The Road (dir. Walter Salles, 2012) – Young writer Sal Paradise begins his life on the road, sparked by the carefree spirits of his new friend Dean Moriarty.


Though well-produced and acted, this dry adaptation fails to grasp the life in Jack Kerouac’s words and the vibrancy of his characters.


I first read On The Road in secondary school. Back then, I found Jack Kerouac’s words most alluring in his cadence. The eloquent author left a mark with such vivid, instinctive dialogues that flow with such energy, life and heart. More than a story, the novel is a rare invitation to a drifter’s vast world and a free spirit’s winding journey.

“The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

– On The Road, Jack Kerouac

So when I heard about a new movie adaptation, I was excited. The tone seemed on the right track as Sam Riley’s narration rasps over its trailer along the verve of the beat. After a long wait, the DVDs hit the shelves and sadly failed to match my expectations.

A conventional film adaptation of On The Road feels devoid of the promised energy. Disjointed at parts, the dull narrative never manages to retain attention. Perhaps the story was never meant for the screens. Bringing across the beauty of language to a visual form is after all, an almost impossible task.

Though the storytelling do not play out particularly well, the lovely cinematography does justice to its spirit. A road trip like this simply cannot do without breathtaking landscapes, which are certainly the draw.

The actors impress, too. With a brooding presence, Sam Riley as Sal Paradise makes his struggles felt, be it with his father’s death or writing troubles. Tom Sturridge’s Carlo Marx is a captivating watch with depth in his vulnerability. Kristen Stewart and Garrett Hedlund are the bigger surprises, bringing equally fine performances as the seductive Marylou and free-spirited Dean Moriarty.

Other fascinating characters, including Viggo Mortensen’s Old Bull Lee, fade into the background. Their almost fleeting appearances hold little impact or inspiration. It never feels as if we have known them as friends like we do on Kerouac’s pages. We can only come to know such irreplicable exhilaration through his poignant sentences that I believe should be read at least once in a lifetime.

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