When I think of Jack Kerouac’s 1957 novel “On the Road,” I think of a handsome boy with long blond hair who slept his way – quite literally – through the American literature seminar we were in at Sarah Lawrence College while the rest of us sat at a round table and earnestly made our way through the canon from Nathaniel Hawthorne to F. Scott Fitzgerald.
That is until we got to Kerouac, and our Endymion rose from a neighboring couch to proclaim “On the Road” the greatest book ever written. Whereupon he promptly went back to sleep.
“On the Road” has that kind of effect on beautiful boys. It is itself in part the story of a beautiful boy, hedonistic hellion Dean Moriarty, and the havoc he wreaks on his circle, which includes the literary narrator – and Kerouac alter ego – Sal Paradise. In the film version, which opens Dec. 21, Moriarty – based on Kerouac pal Neal Cassady, muse of the alienated ’50s Beat Generation – is played by Garrett Hedlund, whose star has been on the rise ever since he played Patroclus to Brad Pitt’s Achilles in “Troy,” the not-as-bad-as-you-might-think 2004 adaptation of “The Iliad.” In a different time, Pitt himself might’ve played Dean, who also conjures images of another Dean, James.
That Hedlund isn’t a Brad Pitt-ish star as yet is certainly not for lack of trying. He’s sported leopard pants on the cover of W and is the subject of a moody, impressionistic photo essay in the October Vogue, where he’s hailed on the cover as one of the “Magnificent Seven,” along with decidedly not back-uppity backup quarterback Tim Tebow and new Spider-Man Andrew Garfield. (Sigh.)
Will “On the Road” – co-starring Sam Riley as Sal and Kristen Stewart (late of “Twilight” and Rob Pattinson heartache) as Marylou, one of the many women who serve as so much Dean detritus – make Hedlund a star? The Daily Telegraph signaled his performance “a gritty revelation, desperate and magnetic.” So far, the film, which bowed this past May at the Cannes Film Festival, has garnered mixed reviews, perhaps in part because the novel, considered one of the most seminal of the 20th century, fills many with ambivalence. As Linda Holmes wrote in her astutely observed review for NPR, “It’s perhaps a testament to my resistance to this material that I’ve never felt moved to read Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road,’ but I have to suspect it’s better than this disappointing adaptation, or at least more interesting.
“First things first: As a general matter, any story that proposes that young writers are the most interesting and amazing people in the world – as a largely autobiographical story by a writer is in danger of doing – begins with an uphill battle. In fact, any film in which all the characters seem utterly convinced of their own importance and coolness from the outset has the same battle. No one wants to hear a story in which the underlying thesis is that the person who wrote the story is better than the people hearing it….
“What I wanted from ‘On The Road’ was something that would capture what people love about Beat literature. What I got was a movie that genuinely draws all its pleasures from people speaking painfully affected dialogue and doing lots of drugs and having lots of sex with each other.”
Touché. Still, “On the Road” is supposed to be about the five Ls – love, lust, longing, loneliness and loss — and there is Hedlund.
That makes it worth a look-see, no?