It's revered as a literary classic, its coolness extends into perpetuity, yet Jack Kerouac's On the Road has somehow never quite found its way in front of the movie cameras. That is all to change when shooting begins on an adaptation this August, and casting has now been announced, with Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley and Kristen Stewart set to play really, really good-looking versions of actual people.
That is, real people masquerading as works of fiction. For while Kerouac's book is autobiographical, recounting the journeys he took across the States with his similarly bohemian-minded pals, the names were changed at the request of his publishers. So Kerouac himself was reborn as Sal Paradise, while his most colourful travelling companion, Neal Cassady, became Dean Moriarty. Soon to be seen in a movie version of another much-worshipped novel, Brighton Rock, Sam Riley is to take on the role of Paradise, while Tron Legacy star Hedlund is down to play Moriarty.
Taking a well-earned break from being scrapped over by whey-faced vampires and abs-bearing werewolves, Kristen Stewart will fill the role of Mary-Lou, the teen bride of Moriarty based on Cassady's first wife LuAnne Henderson. The director charged with wrangling the named triumvirate of hot young t'ings is Walter Salles, who of course took another cinematic road trip with The Motorcycle Diaries in 2004. The screenwriter of that movie, José Rivera, has been entrusted with the task of converting Kerouac's meandering novel into a screenplay.
On the Road was first published in 1957 and efforts to turn it into a movie have been going on for a sizeable portion of the since-elapsed period. At the apex of his powers following the first two Godfather movies, The Conversation, and Apocalypse Now, Francis Ford Coppola purchased the rights to Kerouac's book in 1980, and oversaw several attempts to deliver a workable screenplay. Michael Herr, best known to movie fans for his contributions to Apocalypse Now and Full Metal Jacket, took a swing at the script first, before Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) also had a crack.
Moving into the '90s, and with no evidence of significant progress Coppola worked up a new script himself, in collaboration with his son Roman. Apparently failing to even please himself, Coppola then turned to Russell Banks, writer of the source novel of Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. With Banks apparently cracking the Sphinxian riddle of crafting a screenplay from Kerouac's novel, it seemed the motor was finally running on the On the Road movie in 2001. Coppola was ready to produce, Brad Pitt and Billy Crudup were lined up to play Paradise and Moriarty, while direction was to be the preserve of Joel Schumacher.
Mmmm, that's correct. The same Joel Schumacher who lumbered Arnold Schwarzenegger's Mr. Freeze with more ice-based puns than any sane audience could bear to listen to without ripping off their own lugholes and wolfing them down in the rapacious manner of an emaciated derelict suddenly granted unlimited access to the overpriced nachos on sale at the multiplex concessions stall. The same Joel Schumacher who presented Batman fans with a Bane who was less a lethal foe for the caped crusader and more a horrifically hungover Fred Flintstone with what appeared to be a pair of children's novelty curly drinking straws going into his head. And the same Joel Schumacher who gave Batman and Robin the kind of Polaris missile nipples that you might expect to see on a naked swimmer taking a very early morning dip in the North Sea, but not so much on a superhero's body armour.
Schumacher would probably try to counter the weight of Batman and Robin detractions by pointing to his own record of working with up-and-coming talent in youth-centric flicks; from St. Elmo's Fire and The Lost Boys in the '80s, to Tigerland in 2000, and – coming soon – the movie adaptation of Nick McDonell's Twelve (don't get too excited about that one. Panned at Sundance, it stars haircut in search of a personality Chace Crawford in the lead role of White Mike). However Schumacher's rep for glossy superficiality surely means that Kerouac zealots are glad his version of On the Road never quite got going.
They are likely to be pleased too that it is Salles' name now stencilled onto the back of the director's chair. The Brazilian first gained widespread attention amongst English-language audiences with 2001's rugged Behind the Sun (an overrated one for me), and Coppola reputedly decided he was the perfect director for On the Road after seeing The Motorcycle Diaries. Salles has undertaken extensive research as part of his preparation for filming the $25m-budgeted On the Road, apparently shooting an as-yet unreleased documentary in which he retraces Kerouac's cross-country trips and speaks to some of those who knew the writer, and some of those influenced by his writings.
Obviously Kerouac and the Beats possess an eternal cachet with the wannabe hipsters of each cultural epoch, as the latter narcissistically model themselves as spiritual inheritors of the former's artistic legacy. It is perhaps no surprise then that there are multiple movie projects in the works pertaining to some of the figures featured in On the Road. For example, Allen Ginsberg, rechristened Carlo Marx in Kerouac's book, is being played by James Franco in Howl, which focuses on the 1957 obscenity trial faced by the writer over the film's titular poem.
Ginsberg had a long-standing infatuation with Neal Cassady, and Cassady would be a featured character if Gus van Sant ever proceeds with his version of Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Cassady appears in that book as he linked up with Ken Kesey and his counter-culture outfit, the Merry Pranksters, in the '60s, and was driver on their (in)famous Magic Bus trip across America in 1964. The actual footage shot by the Pranksters on that trip is being cut into a documentary entitled Magic Bus by Alex Gibney, director of Casino Jack and the United States of Money. Meanwhile, The Messenger director Oren Moverman was rumoured to be readying a movie of William S. Burroughs' Queer (Burroughs' On the Road alter-ego: Old Bull Lee), with Steve Buscemi in the lead - though this seems to have fallen behind James Ellroy's Rampart on the filmmaker's to-do list.