As an aside to my regularly-scheduled digital misadventures, I am compelled to include a recent episode I'd always imagined would be a life-altering event. As I fast approach my half-century mark, this event falls squarely under the "I never thought I'd see this in my lifetime" menu item. Like avoiding the grim reaper, I've dreaded this moment, but also been a bit curious to see what the old boy's like under his hoodie.
My event, oddly enough, concerns the recent film adaption of Jack Kerouac's On the Road. Having not only read the book several times, I also studied numerous biographies, many of Kerouac's letters, as well as dozens of scholarly riffs on this piece of mid-last-century lit. I know all the real-life scenes, understand the whole myth behind Kerouac's supposed benny-induced nonstop typing of the novel. I know how long it took him to find a publisher, as well as the damaging effects its success had on him. Hell, I even bought a Dutch-language version of the book when in Amsterdam (it's called Onderweg).
But this isn't just a film culled from a book. It's a film culled from a book that was largely autobiographical, whose characters are now, 50+ years later, virtually indistinguishable from their real life counterparts - something Brazilian filmmaker Walter Salles capitalized on. In our post-modern world, personal works of art are often readjusted, re-aligned and re-maligned over the course of generations. Fellini's 8 1/2, back in '63, was also this type of artwork: a film about a film director having trouble making a film. Twenty years later, a Broadway musical based itself on the same material, but Nine seemed like less like a rework and more like an alternate take. However, when Rob Marshall decided to make a film of that Broadway show, he set it back in 1963 in order to emphasize we were watching a film based on the real life drama of Federico Fellini, not the character played by Daniel Day-Lewis. (I am surprised Marshall didn't shoot in black and white, as 8 1/2 was originally presented, but you really can't sell a glitzy movie musical without all that color.)
Still, watching On the Road was an intensely personal experience. I waited for Netflix so I could screen it alone, under the covers with two dogs fast asleep beside me. I won't review the film here except to say that it was faithful to the material for the most part and didn't ramble on as much as you'd think a rambling first-person series of roadtrips would. This is one of the reasons the book was thought to be "unfilmmable". But Kerouac gifted us with more than just hip narration and cool dialogue; as any good chronicler does, he gave us indelible images to play with.
The trouble most people like me have with film novelizations is that I envision characters and events in a totally different way than a screenwriter and filmmaker. In fact, like a lot of people, I will inevitably "cast" an actor in a role, hear their voice while reading dialogue. Action tends to be less adventurous in novels and this is where movies are able to take the visual to loftier extremes. I read the Percy Jackson novels before the films came out and there is no way what I conjured in my mind while reading can match the awesome action sequences onscreen. Uma Thurman aside, my imagination is not as good as CGI in 2013.
Back in the 90's David Cronenberg attempted to film William Burroughs' Naked Lunch. A scatalogical, drug-induced web of cautionary tales, there was only one way to connect them: introduce Burroughs' actual life story into the script in order to ground and focus the rest of the plot. If you already knew the source material, I think the film worked just fine - but if you were unfamiliar with either Burroughs or the Beats, you might as well have been sitting through Existenz.
So I was pleased the film version of On the Road didn't try to go all "meta" on me. It did not try to distill all of Kerouac and Beat Literature into its manifest. The novel emerged from notebooks Kerouac kept while just living his life. His iconic style sprang largely from the bebop jazz he loved so much, matching its relentless syncopation and improvisation. However, the main problem I have with this film is I wasn't watching On the Road, the misadventures of purehearted Sal and wildhearted Dean, I was watching a Jack Kerouac/Neal Cassady bio pic. The differences between real life and art can be small, but significant. Kerouac wasn't as much a radical as his p.r. machine tries to sell. He spent his time doing what his friends did: party, listen to music, try to score with chicks, argue with his mom. The most wild thing his clique did was drop benzedrine inhalers in their coffee. Salles' film doesn't show us a lot of moments where there isn't drug use and wild sex, giving the audience the impression that's all these characters were about.
A good simple example has to do with underwear. In the book, when Sal first meets Dean, it's a shocker because Dean opens up his front door wearing only his underwear. In real life, when Kerouac first met Neal, Neal opened up his front door bareass naked. Conservative Kerouac didn't feel the need to relate these exact details in his book, (or maybe his publisher insisted), but the film relies on reallife facts and not the novel for this introductory scene. I found a lot of that in the movie: when Old Bull Lee shows up in the middle of the plot, we all know it's William Burroughs and there's no attempt to differentiate character from real legend. Carlo Marx, based on Allen Ginsberg, shows up in the last part of the movie sporting a full beard. Was that in the book? Maybe not, but in real life Ginsberg had this look at the time, so the movie faithfully reports it like it's a mini-documentary instead of a filmed version of literature.
There are a few remaining items on my bucket list: I've been both mortified and wistful while daydreaming about a big screen adaption of Catcher in the Rye. Yes, the novel deserves to be brought to a new generation through film. No, I don't want another bout of Cider House Rules hanging over my memory (I will never be able to reread John Irving's novel now that I've seen the film). There are remaining a handful of cherished novels that haven't made it to film (Poppy Z. Brite's Drawing Blood, Hemingway's Moveable Feast, Grant Morrison's Invisibles), while there are others I cringe for/long for currently in production (Neil Gaiman's Sandman series, Faulkner's As I Lay Dying).
Cinema will mine what it needs in order to survive; I accept this. I don't believe there are any sacred cows in art. Art is meant to be interpreted, and, if need be, reinterpreted. There are hundreds of years of amazing work that have been lost to the ashtrays of time, just as there are too many "new" stories that have been told several times over millennia. In the end, the novel is the novel and the film is the film and where the two meet is just a movie studio decision, an editor's point-of-view, an auteur's grasp of the material, sometimes the author's contractual agreement. In my digital world, images and words collide and coalesce. Somewhere, always, there's a kid with a notebook (or an iPad) writing down the utter crap he and his wild friends are up to that will become "a voice of a generation", and then the machine starts churning again.