Sixty-two years ago this week, Jack Kerouac sat down at a typewriter in a Manhattan apartment. Hyped-up on coffee, he spent three weeks hammering out an autobiographical story of his journeys across the country in the previous four years.
Drawing from copious notes, the determined Kerouac spilled out his words on a ‘scroll’ of taped-together paper. By the time, he had finished, the scroll was 120 feet long.
Six years later, Kerouac’s novel finally was published.
“On the Road” became an instant literary sensation, an explosion of spontaneous prose that contributed to the counter-cultural upheaval of the 1960s and '70s and continues to be a must-read for young people.
“On the Road,” however, was considered to be unfilmable.
In 1957, Kerouac wrote to Marlon Brando asking him to buy the rights for the book. Nothing came of that request. Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights to the book in 1979, suggesting first that Jean-Luc Goddard, then Gus Van Sant make the film. Those suggestions didn’t happen, either.
Then Brazilian director Walter Salles and a French production company entered the picture and got the film made.
“On the Road” adheres faithfully to Kerouac’s writing and the spirit of the novel. It’s playing through April 18 at the Mary Riepma Ross Media Arts Center.
A guide to the “On the Road” characters by character name, real person and actor:
Sal Paradise -- Jack Kerouac (Sam Riley). A French Canadian high school football star who grew up in Massachusetts, Kerouac went to New York to play football at Columbia University. An injury ended his football career, and he fell with a group of aspiring poets and writers that became known as the Beat Generation.
Dean Moriarty -- Neal Cassady (Garrett Hedlund). The central figure of “On the Road,” Cassady was a Denver hustler, con artist and a wild driver who became friends with Kerouac and the other writers in the late 1940s and inspired Kerouac’s first cross-country trip, joining him on subsequent adventures. After his friendship with Kerouac crumbled, Cassady worked on the railroad, did some writing and drove the bus for Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
Carlo Marx -- Allen Ginsberg (Tom Sturridge). A teenage poet, six years younger than Kerouac, Ginsberg met Kerouac through Lucien Carr, a character briefly seen early in the film. Carr first introduced Ginsberg to William Burroughs, then indirectly to Kerouac. The pair remained in contact and on-and-off close friends until Kerouac’s death in 1969. The openly gay Ginsberg fell in love and had a short sexual relationship with Cassady. His epic poem “Howl” became the first noted Beat writing in 1957. “Howl” was made into a movie about the poem and Ginsberg in 2010, with James Franco playing Ginsberg.
Old Bull Lee -- William Burroughs (Viggo Mortensen). The oldest of the Beats, Burroughs was a Harvard-educated scion of the Burroughs adding machine family turned junkie. Skeptical of Cassady, whom he saw as simply a heartless con artist, Burroughs began writing in the 1950s, creating his nonlinear, strikingly imagined masterpiece “Naked Lunch” in Tangier, Morocco, with Kerouac and Ginsberg helping to type and shape the book. Director David Cronenberg adapted “Naked Lunch” into a 1991 film with Peter Weller playing the central Burroughs-esque character and other characters representing Kerouac and Ginsberg.
Ed Dunkel -- Al Hinkle (Danny Morgan). The “last man standing” among the male members of the Beat generation, the 86-year-old retired railroad conductor Hinkle met Cassady as boys in Denver and accompanied him and his ex-wife on a trip from San Francisco to North Carolina to meet Kerouac. Hinkle brought his new wife, Helen, along for part of the trip.
Marylou -- LuAnne Henderson (Kristen Stewart). Cassady’s first wife, Henderson was a sexually free teenager when she accompanied her new husband on the road. She continued to travel and sleep with Cassady even after he had divorced her.
Camille -- Carolyn Cassady (Kirsten Dunst). Carolyn was Cassady’s second wife and the mother of his children. She also had a relationship with Kerouac, which she wrote about in her 1976 memoir, “Heart Beat: My Life With Jack and Neal.” Carolyn is one of the few remaining members of the Beat circle who is still alive -- at age 79.
Jane -- Joan Vollmer (Amy Adams). The most prominent female in the early Beat circle, Vollmer was the common law wife of Burroughs and stayed with him on his travels to Texas, Louisiana and Mexico. She tragically was killed when Burroughs accidentally shot her while playing "William Tell" with a pistol in Mexico City in 1951.
Terry -- Bea Franco (Agnes Braga). Kerouac had a short love affair with migrant worker Bea Franco while working the cotton fields of California. She planned to travel to New York with her young son to join Kerouac. The trip never took place.
Galatea Dunkel -- Helen Hinkle (Elisabeth Moss). The wife of Al Hinkle, Helen was abandoned while traveling to New York with her husband, Cassady and Henderson and stayed with Burroughs and Vollmer in Louisiana before the trio and Kerouac returned to pick her up.
The 'On the Road' story
Kerouac made four trips that he turned into “On the Road.”
The first, and only one on which he hitchhiked, came in 1947. Thumbing rides from New York to Denver, where he was to meet Cassady and Ginsberg, Kerouac came through Nebraska, at one point riding on the back of a truck with several men, a scene that makes the movie. He went on to San Francisco and Los Angeles then returned to New York.
In 1949, Kerouac, (with Cassady ballin’ the jack behind the wheel, and Henderson and Hinkle) traveled from his sister’s home in North Carolina, taking Kerouac’s beloved mother back home to New Jersey, then headed south to New Orleans to reunite Hinkle with his wife, who was with Burroughs and Vollmer at their home in Algiers. That portion of the trip is pivotal in the film, containing the only appearances of Old Bull Lee and Jane. Kerouac and others continued on to San Francisco, and Kerouac returned to New York.
The third trip -- New York to Denver, San Francisco and Detroit and back to New York -- also took place in 1949. In 1950, Kerouac’s final trip took him from New York to Denver, Mexico and back to New York. The Mexico portion of the journey, taken with Cassady, provides the concluding road portion of the film.
The events from the four trips are jumbled in the novel, incidents tied together to create a cohesive narrative rather than a chronological recording. Those journeys are further changed and, by necessity, truncated in the film.
'On the Road' the novel
“On the Road,” the novel exists in two versions, the first published version from 1957 and the original scroll draft that was published as he wrote it in 2007 to mark the 50th anniversary of the book.
There are significant differences between the two versions of the book. Most instantly apparent, the scroll draft uses real names rather than characters. The 1957 version also was edited heavily, excising some characters, removing much of the sexuality and some of the autobiographical content.
The latter can be seen in the contrasting opening paragraphs of the two versions:
From the 1957 version:
“I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it had something to do with the miserably weary split-up and my feeling that everything was dead. With the coming of Dean Moriarty began the part of my life you could call my life on the road.”
From the scroll:
“I first met Neal not long after my father died. I had just gotten over a serious illness that I won’t bother to talk about except that it really had something to do with my father’s death and the awful feeling everything was dead. With the coming of Neal there really began for me that part of my life that you could call my life on the road.”
The movie opens with a voice-over of the scroll version of the first paragraph, save for the name change from Neal to Dean. It also includes much of the sexuality edited from the 1957 version, including a scene in which Cassady hustles a gay man, played by Steve Buscemi, that is not in the 1957 version. The film, which wisely doesn’t use much of Kerouac’s writing, is closer in tone and event to the scroll version than to the novel that most have read.
What is Beat?
The term “beat” originated with Times Square hustler, small-time criminal and drug dealer Herbert Huncke, who was brought into the circle of writers by Burroughs, who was one of Huncke’s customers.
Derived from “beat to my socks,” Huncke suggested to Kerouac that the term ‘beat,’ meaning tired, could describe an entire generation. Kerouac later insisted that ‘beat’ was a derivation of ‘beatific’ and was based on the blessed nature of his generation.
Regardless of the definition, ‘beat’ in its original context has nothing to do with ‘beatnik,’ a pejorative term coined by San Francisco newspaper columnist Herb Caen to describe the beret-clad, coffeehouse-inhabiting hipsters who popped up in the wake of the real beats.
While Kerouac may have brought ‘beat’ into the vernacular, historian Bill Morgan says the Beat Generation should be seen as a creation of Ginsberg's.
“The history of the Beat Generation is really the story of this one man’s desire to gather a circle of friends around him, people he loved and who could love him,” Morgan writes in his book “The Typewriter is Holy.” “What united these people was not only a love of literature, but also Ginsberg’s supportive character, a trait that often verged on obsession. It was their friendship that they shared and not any common literary style, philosophy or social theory.”
In a 1959 letter to Ginsberg, Kerouac shared the definition of “beat generation” that he’d submitted to the American College Dictionary: “beat generation, members of the generation that came of age after World War II-Korean War who join in a relaxation of social and sexual tensions and espouse anti-regimentation, mythic-disaffiliation and material-simplicity values, supposedly as a result of Cold War disillusionment.”