DVD Review: On the Road

I remember back in 1996 I went and saw A Time To Kill in theaters and was completely blown away. I loved everything about it. A few years later I picked up the novel by John Grisham on which the film was based and it quickly became one of the best books I’ve ever read. Not long after that I revisited the film, and was shocked with how much they’d taken out during the adaptation. The film was still good, it just wasn’t as fulfilling as it had been the first time I’d seen it. This was something I’ve come to experience many more times since then with adaptations, as it’s a rare thing to ever have film actually prove to be better than its literary counterpart – simply because of the limitations that come with the medium.

On the Road is a novel by Jack Kerouac that’s been called generation defining, and an American classic. It’s also been said that the book couldn’t be adapted for the silver screen simply due to the way it’s written, and how much of the character and heart of the novel just couldn’t be expressed through visuals. For that, scriptwriter Jose Rivera must be commended, as he attempted what was said to be impossible and at least got everyone inside the book from point A to point B over the course of two hours – even if it wasn’t in the smoothest or most coherent of fashions.

On the Road is based off of Kerouac’s own experiences traveling with friends cross-country, though names were changed for the characters in the book/film. The movie is narrated by a young, struggling writer named Sal Paradise (Sam Riley) who is basically just treading water in life with no real direction or goal to help move him forward. That changes when a friend of his introduces him to Dean Moriarty (Garrett Hedlund), a carefree soul who lives life by his own rules and never closes the door on any experience. Together, along with Dean’s fiancée Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and another friend, Dean takes Sal on a cross-country adventure that opens Sal’s eyes to the world of Jazz, drugs, love and so much more.

One of the main issues the film faces is that it’s not friendly or welcoming to those who haven’t read the book. I’m one of those people, and to me the film felt incredibly slow paced and filled with characters who I could tell would have been interesting to read about in Kerouac’s writing; however, in the film they’re merely a blip on the radar while Sal travels from place to place. That’s not to say that those who read the book will like the film, just that they’ll at least be able to fill in certain blanks along the way that make the movie incomprehensible at times.

There’s a basic structure that’s easy to understand in that Sal needs inspiration and he finds it through Dean and the way he lives life so nonchalantly. Every experience Sal has with Dean is something fresh, something new, and while he learns along the way that Dean isn’t without fault, there’s just little reason to care about anyone while watching due to how the film is put together.

There are jumps in time, characters that come and go, unclear motivations, things that feel as though they’ll lead somewhere or at least be talked about but are quickly swept under the rug or taken care of by flashing forward and not looking back, and in the end It feels more like a bunch of random road trips put together with no real meaning behind them just to end up somewhere that feels disjointed and tacked on.

From a visual standpoint the film is shot quite beautifully. Director Walter Salles has some great backgrounds and landmark shots to play with (even though they didn’t actually travel across the States while filming) and makes it feel like this was an epic journey that was taken, at least from a scenic standpoint. The set design is also top notch, really placing the viewer in the time period and place that the various scenes are happening in.

A successful book to film adaptation means one shouldn’t have to read the book in order to fully understand the story. While A Time To Kill was superior as a novel, the film still made my jaw drop when I saw it beforehand. And while a second viewing of the film came off as a bare bones version of the book, it still hit all the right points along the way to make it an entertaining, complete movie for those who had read the book prior, and for those who hadn’t. The same can’t be said for On the Road, as something was definitely lost in translation along the way.

The video transfer of the film looks good, with the picture holding that beautiful look of being shot on film that helps sell the aesthetic of the movie so well. The audio mixes also come through nicely, with a strong soundtrack blasting through most of the film, and the dialogue coming through cleanly from start to finish.

Deleted Scenes – The only special features to be found here are some deleted scenes that only would’ve slowed the film more. Fans of the film and book may want to check them out, but really there’s no need. Surprisingly, there’s no audio commentary by the writer or director, as it would’ve been interesting to hear about the struggles with the adaptation, or why certain choices were made.

On the Road is an example of a book to film adaptation that simply misses the mark. While fans of the book may have some sort of idea what’s going on, those who haven’t will usually find themselves lost or confused by the randomness of events and lack of overall character development. While it’s visually pleasing, On the Road lacks energy and isn’t able to define a fully coherent story, let alone a generation.

MK2 and American Zoetrope Present On the Road. Directed by: Walter Salles. Written by: Jose Rivera. Based on the novel by: Jack Kerouac. Starring: Garrett Hedlund, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, Amy Adams, Tom Sturridge, Danny Morgan, Alice Braga, Elisabeth Moss, Kristen Dunst, Viggo Mortensen. Running time: 124 minutes. Rating: 14A. Released: August 6, 2013.

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