Thursday, May 13, 2010

On On The Road: The Movie!

So, I read on Google News that Hollywood (or, rather, a specific film company which apathy restrains me from looking up) is about to begin filming an adaptation of Jack Kerouac's book, On The Road.  There's the Fat Man bomb. The headline in which I received the news then dropped the Little Boy that the female lead in the film (yeah, I don't remember one in the book either) will be played by the girl from the Twilight movies.  That sound you hear is, in fact, the last shovelful of dirt on the grave of the Beat Generation.  That is, at least, until their work passes into the public domain long after all of us are dead and some wag feels the book would be improved if they added passages in which the protagonists travel the country fighting the undead.

I don't usually talk about film on this blog, mainly because I get tired of re-explaining Sturgeon's Law.  In this case I'm making an exception since the material is based on a work of literature and gives an opportunity to talk about a period of American literary history sparsely convered thus far on this blog. So, before we go any further, I should probably take a moment to talk about The Beat Generation. Then we can move on to the subject of film adaptations of books.

The Beat Generation was a literary movement in America starting in the late 1940s and extending... well, to various points depending on who you talk to.  I think it's safe to say it's long over now, arguably long over before I was born.  Much like The Lost Generation of the 1920s, there seems to be little unity in the styles, themes, forms and messages from the authors of the Beat Generation. They seem to be a movement revolving around some guys who comprised a circle of friends (although even that doesn't quite fit as there are people like Richard Brautigan or Charles Bukowski who are sometimes linked to the Beats even though they were never invited to the Beat parties.  And, parenthetically, both of whom I like far better than many of the card carrying Beats.)

The big three of the Beats were Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs.  Kerouac was a novelist, Ginsberg a poet and Burroughs a platypus or something.   I like Ginsberg and Burroughs quite a bit individually.  I think Ginsberg "did it right" early on in extending a reach back to the older poets while seeking to blaze a new trail.  I have no qualm with asserting that Howl is one of the greatest and most important pieces of writing in the English language of the last 100 years.  In spite of his really shabby third act of writing and his lifelong insistence of the greatness of Kerouac, I think Ginsberg was one of our better poets.

Burroughs' work in his day was like taking an iPod to neanderthals.  His experimentation was light years beyond anything that I'm even seeing today much less fifty years ago.  The better of the Beats and their forerunning of Transgressional writing was of great interest to me. Which, unfortunately is the aspect of the Beat era that I don't see in Kerouac's work.  Other than that, I don't know what you could say about the unifying element of the Beats.  Maybe that they were urban or experimental or modern or inspired by jazz, but even all of those don't quite fit in all of the peg holes.

When I was talking to Laurie about this, I think she hit it on the head when she said "Kerouac is like Pink Floyd to me."  I knew what she meant.  She meant that a lot of people get really really into it and think it's the greatest thing ever when they're about 16 years old, but then usually completely lose interest in it by the time they are about 22 or 23.  That's all well and good as I suppose Kerouac could be a gateway author into a habit with greater authors down the road.  I suppose I shouldn't knock that, but I have grave doubts that I'll ever read the man again.

I have a friend who is a literature professor who recently told me that the academic market in America is absolutely flooded with "experts" on the Beat Generation.  This didn't surprise me as there was a huge spike in their popularity in the 1990s, about the time the last of them were dying off.  I was no exception in the spike in interest in their writing at the time and now I sort of feel like I dodged a bullet.  Had I gone for my teaching credentials in the mindset I was in during the mid-1990s, I very well may have focused my expertise in that direction as well.  Although, like all great literature, the flooding of that market is not indicative of how widely they are read.  Some may be fixing to object to what I've just said, but stick with me for a moment here and I think you'll see what I mean.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Beats were the counter-cultural figures in American literature. There was also a literary community of sorts of the young Establishment literary elite who included people like Gore Vidal, Norman Mailer and Truman Capote. I absolutely adore Capote's work. Vidal I could take or leave, and those who know me know how strongly I dislike Norman Mailer.  Capote famously responded when told that Kerouac wrote On The Road in only 2 weeks, "That's not writing. That's typing!"

I would add that these men are also not terribly widely read today. There are people from that generation of authors in America who are still widely read but who wouldn't have been invited to the parties of either group.  I speak of Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut.  There's probably a lesson there for writers.

I would say that if American Literature of that period were a college, the Beats would be the hipsters or art students, the Vidal group would be the frats, and Bradbury would be like the quiet, studious honors student whose name you didn't even know but who, years later, becomes a billionaire.

All in all, as with any time period, time weeds out the awful, and the enduring remains.  This is not to say that there aren't lost masterpieces by any means.  I think history has revealed that there are tons of lost or forgotten masterpieces.  What I am saying is that what is popular today doesn't necessarily indicate what will be read in 500, 100 or even 25 years from now.

I don't want to come down too hard on Kerouac.  I do like some of his work although it's mainly the less popular, darker pieces like Maggie Cassidy or Big Sur.  I've heard rumors about a film version of On The Road for years, but one has never happened until now.  I think there is a reason for that.  I don't think there's a movie in it because I don't think the story by itself is that captivating.  What's interesting about it is the words, not the visual story.  The visual story is a couple of unemployed young men travelling the country, listening to jazz and, I don't know, maybe talking here and there about this and that.  It is in Kerouac's exposition where he attempts to elevate the experiences to the celestial, the holy, the grand.  Whether or not he is successful in that endeavor and regardless of what I say about quality, his voice is what makes the book interesting.

Fans of Hunter S. Thompson's writing can explain to you the difference between the 1980s movie Where The Buffalo Roam, which was (very loosely) based on several of his works, and the 1990s adaptation of his magnum opus Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  The former was a failure and the latter somewhat of an uneven success as a film.  That is because the former shows what Hunter Thompson is doing, which isn't nearly as interesting as showing what's going on inside of Hunter Thompson's head, which is what the latter attempted.

Which, in the end, is the problem with most film adaptations of books.  Put simply, the problem with a film adaptation is that it is not the book.  Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that no one should ever make a film adaptation of a work of literature.  I think there are fine adaptations out there of works of literature into film.  Hiroshima Mon Amor, Jules et Jim, Betty Blue, Satyricon, and, hey, if we're desiring our fallutin' to not be at quite such astonishing heights, I even liked the V for Vendetta adaptation.  I thought it cut in understandable places and reworked the material in an attempt to speak to the time and place of its release (Bush's America instead of Thatcher's England.)  And I'm sure there are many more exceptions, but still, there is a reason why "the book is so much better" has become a cliche in reference to film adaptations.

It's important for one to know why a work of literature is a work of literature.  If what makes the book great is the language of the storyteller, one might do well to avoid attempting to twist it into the medium of visual story telling.  It's the same reason we don't have Plato's Republic: The Musical.  Film is a visual story telling medium which would suggest having a story that is visually interesting.

Even better than examples of exceptions, there are films about authors which are excellent and serve to introduce new audiences to works. American Splendor springs to mind.  As does, staying on topic, Cronenberg's Naked Lunch, which wasn't an adaptation of the book so much as a collage of William Burroughs' life surrounding the period in which he wrote the book.  I have heard that the recent Allen Ginsberg biopic Howl was excellent. I thought that the recent film Capote was fantastic. It would seem to me that making films to inspire audiences to dig deeper into books would both bring in the fan base dollar as well as, look out, I'm going to go for the Newton Minnow sounding admonition, being a responsible film maker and respecting the original work.

I would also point out that there are many great, struggling LIVING authors who could use the money from a film adaptation of their book way more than a man 40 years in the grave. 

So, my whole point is that, like it or not, I don't think making On The Road into a film is a very good idea but, like it or not, they didn't ask me and they are going to make it anyway. Also, for those who know about Kerouac's life and his severe difficulty in coping with fame and the general public's misunderstanding of his work, the most honoring thing one could do for Kerouac, if one was so inclined, would be to make sure that none of one's money goes toward such a thing.

It would be unfair and irresponsible for me to say that this film adaptation will be awful. It may be the best film adaptation in the history of film for all I know. I am not a prophet. However, I think we can all sense patterns in the established data which indicate that 1) film adaptations of books tend to be uneven, probably less than 25% being worthwhile and 2) especially with books that do not lend themselves to visual story telling.  My thesis is that this book does not lend itself to visual story telling.

And, in the end, hearing a book I like is being adapted into a movie tends to elicit the same response as when I hear a song I like used as a commercial jingle. I know that the original work will outlast the parasitic offshoot. But it doesn't do much to soften the blow of watching something you love sacrificed on the altar of the god Millions of Dollars.


  1. I whole-heartedly agree with much of what you say here, save for one detail: you mention that Vidal, Mailer, and Capote aren't widely-read anymore; Vidal, perhaps, is no longer read, and Mailer's readership is probably in decline, but Capote is still (at least) a staple of literature curricula in schools around the country. For example, whenever 'To Kill a Mockingbird' is taught, at least something by Capote is generally thrown into the mix due to his affiliation with Dill in Lee's novel. Many of my students have gone from 'Mockingbird' to 'In Cold Blood' or 'Breakfast at Tiffany's' (on their own, no less!).

    Incidentally, I agree that making a movie out of 'On the Road' is a bad idea, though Francis Ford Coppolla and Gus Van Sant are executive producers (this, of course, means nothing; both directors, despite their greatness as directors, have produced unwatchable bilge before). The director, however, Walter Salles, did make the wonderful 'Motorcycle Diaries,' so he at least knows a thing or two about road movies.

    And at last, let me assure you, sir, that I would pay good money to see 'Plato's Republic: The Musical.' :)

  2. No kidding! I had no idea Capote is found in school curricula. Thank you for letting me know that. That's very encouraging news to me. I am very happy to hear that.

    I have not seen 'Motorcycle Diaries' but I will go place it near the top of my Netflix queue.

    Ha! You know, upon reflection, I think I would probably pay good money to see that too.