ON THE ROAD
From Book to Film: The Tale of an Adaptation
Adaptation Time by Etienne Rouillon
Jack Kerouac wrote to Neal Cassady, "I'll revolutionize American letters and drink champagne with Hollywood starlets." He delivered on the first part but was stuck with plain water for the second. Yet, it wasn't for lack of trying from the outset. With copies of On the Road hot off the press in 1957, Kerouac confidently put pen to paper in a letter (found in 2005) addressed to Marlon Brando. He has a great idea for him: Brando buys the rights to On the Road to make a film. Marlon plays Dean and Jack plays Sal.
Roman Coppola, head of the American Zoetrope production company with his sister Sofia, has seen a lot of people struggle with it: "Ah yes, the famous letter to Brando! But isn't that a myth? You managed to get hold of it? It's just that there are so many myths about On the Road and beat culture. For instance, I heard about a project with Montgomery Clift. In my opinion, Hollywood was fascinated by the idea of making a movie from the start. The book was very popular there. But there was a catch. Movies are usually built around the classic 'beginning-middle-end' plot structure. On the Road is famously absolutely unconventional in this respect. Most of the adaptation projects contemporaneous with Kerouac focused on that and the results have never been satisfying." Indeed, Roman admits that he too tried to develop a screenplay of the book with himself slated to direct. In fact, the book and its adaptation to the big screen haunted the Coppola family for decades. "We set to work in 1979," resumes Roman Coppola. "My father, Francis Ford Coppola, was very interested in the story and bought the movie rights to the book. In most cases, when it comes to rights in Hollywood, in actual fact, you're really buying an option. Meaning that you buy exclusive adaptation rights on the project for two or three years. So the longer a project drags on the more you have to pay. I don't exactly know how it happened, but my father was actually able to buy the book. No business about options. It was his. Otherwise, he would eventually have dropped the project. He always believed that it would make a wonderful film. Everything was just a matter of timing and meetings. And then Walter Salles came along eight years ago."
"Profoundly harmonious," recalls Rebecca Yeldham, in every possible way -- rapturous, amazing, nostalgic, and poetic -- when asked to tell us about this summit meeting after five decades of thwarted adaptations. "I knew of MK2 as I am very involved in the promotion of foreign films in the United States. When we met them, we'd already been working on the project for 6 years. We'd already struggled with the notion of adapting the quintessential American novel as a foreign crew -- Walter is Brazilian, I'm Australian, Jose Rivera is Puerto Rican, Eric Gaultier is French and Carlos Conti is Argentine. This led us to seek increased legitimacy on the project, which is why we did all this research, the interviews and the trips. "I don't think Walter ever wondered: 'How would Kerouac have shot it?' On the other hand, I do think he was conscious of another question: 'Would Kerouac approve of what I'm doing?' He also knew that it had to be his adaptation, faithful yet creative too. Throughout this eight-year adventure, Walter worked hard to learn all about everyone and everything associated with ON THE ROAD and the culture surrounding it. I think the film is the fruit of these efforts and our shared dedication to honor this beloved text. And with respect to Kerouac, I think that we can be confident about how he would have received our movie, given what he wrote in the letter to Marlon Brando, '...it's going to be the beginning of something real great.'"
Walter Salles recalls, "An adaptation of On the Road? I had never thought about it before the end of THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES. The book had such an iconic quality to me that the idea of adapting it never even crossed my mind. It was only after THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES was presented at Sundance in 2004 that the idea started to take shape." Francis Ford Coppola was so impressed with the film, he zeroxed in on Salles as the missing link in his plans. On the Road has passed through many illustrious hands over the years. In the late 1970s, Francis Ford Coppola suggested to Jean-Luc Godard that he direct it, with no follow through. Later, Gus Van Sant was in the running, as the writer and screenwriter Barry Gifford (WILD AT HEART) tells us: "Francis hired me to write the screenplay for the movie in 1995. The director was Gus Van Sant. For a variety of reasons we were in the dark, we weren't able to finalize the project. I'm delighted that Walter Salles has been able to pull it off. We've become friends as we have a lot in common. He called and invited me to be a consultant on his movie, which I accepted with pleasure. Walter used my book Jack's Book like a bible. It was the first object of its kind, a written chronological documentary, constructed like a video, a 'bookmovie' as Kerouac said. There are obviously many ways to adapt a novel to the screen. What I know for sure is that Walter's version is true to himself." Salles' profound personal commitment is key to understanding why this project at last came to fruition. It had yet to sign a company able to engage wholeheartedly in what for any executive producer constitutes a nightmare project: the period road movie. The MK2 producer Charles Gillibert, who is credited with accelerating the main production process, describes how he was taken over by Walter Salles' contagious enthusiasm. "In early January 2010, Marin Karmitz, Nathanael Karmitz and I had a meeting with Walter Salles at MK2 headquarters in Paris to discuss another project he was working on. After a good hour of discussions on the screenplay, directing, cinemaâ€¦ we were just about to leave. Walter pulled out a manila envelope with the title hand-written in pen: 'ON THE ROAD.' He handed it to us, saying:
"And there's that too.
- ON THE ROAD, like the book?
The tone of his voice betrayed the fact: as we parted we were broaching a subject of much greater magnitude. Walter shot over to the airport to fly back to Brazil. We called him back the next day. He returned to Paris two weeks later with all sorts of documents accompanied by Carlos Conti, the production designer. We began by viewing screen tests of Garrett Hedlund, who'd refused all the roles he was offered for two years for fear of missing out on ON THE ROAD, as well as tests with Sam Riley. We also talked to Kristen Stewart, whom we'd met before the release of the first TWILIGHT film. Miles and miles of location scouting, photos, videos, script meetings, gathering the technical crews and so on. Walter had already traveled the route taken by Kerouac and met all the figures involved in the Beat adventure and the book. He was completely possessed by ON THE ROAD. The film already existed, we just had to find it." They did find it in California. "Ten days later, Nathanael and I arrived in Los Angeles to discuss the film rights with Roman Coppola and Rebecca Yeldham, Walter's producer (who worked with him on THE MOTORCYCLE DIARIES and LINHA DE PASSE.) We gave ourselves one week to reach an agreement as shooting was due to start in the summer."
In Search Of Past Highways
"How long did it take you to write On the Road?" TV talk-show host Steve Allen asks Jack Kerouac in 1959. "Three weeks," Kerouac replies. "That's amazing," Allen marvels. "How long were you on the road itself?" Kerouac thinks. "Seven years." The studio audience murmurs in admiration. But the truth is that Kerouac started On the Road in the summer of 1948, not in 1951, as he later claimed, and did not finish it until 1957. Returning from his first transcontinental road trip in August 1948, he wrote in his diary, on the 23rd: "I have another novel in mind, On the Road, which I keep thinking about, about two guys hitch-hiking to California in search of something they don't really find, and losing themselves on the road, and coming all the way back hopeful of something else."
Byways And Detours
On the Road was Kerouac's second novel. The first, The Town and the City, was strongly influenced by his heroes, Mark Twain, Thomas Wolfe, and Walt Whitman, authors who celebrate America's vastness and splendor. Kerouac began the new novel hoping to find a revolutionary way of writing. But his notebooks still strove to attain the lyricism of his elders. He rummaged about restlessly for a narrative structure. For months on end, he accumulated protoversions of On the Road, some of them one page long, others hundreds. He wrote sometimes in the first person, sometimes the third. He hesitated between travel companions: Warren Beauchamps (Lucien Carr), Dean Pomeray (Neal Cassady); solo. In other words, he rode off in all directions, and after several months of torment, ran dry. So when Neal Cassady, Lu Anne, and Al Hinkle offered to take him on the road again, he immediately accepted. In February 1949, he was back on the East Coast, writing On the Road. He figured he'd have it finished in a matter of months. His trip had convinced him that what he wanted to say about America, the reality, the friendships, the serendipity, required the present immediate tense. He wanted to write a novel about his generation, "a study of the young people of this age who 'refuse to work,' as it were, and who roam the country half on the verge of crime, half on the verge of hoboism" (November 1949 entry in his notebook Night Notes and Diagrams for On the Road). He had succeeded in defining the Beat Generation as his subject, but he was still casting around for the right way to tell the story.
From 1949 to 1950, Kerouac swung between intensive writing and wandering. He moved to Denver alone, hoping to finish his book there; went to live with Neal Cassady in San Francisco; fought with him, returned to New York, left for Denver again, made up with Neal, and spent two months in Mexico City with Burroughs, high as a kite 24 hours a day, returned definitively to New York in late 1950, married a young woman he'd just met, moved into her place, and got a job as a scribbler at 20th Century Fox. The whole time, he progressed with the novel as if in a labyrinth -- getting lost. In spring 1951, he was hospitalized for weeks with phlebitis. The day he was discharged, he told Holmes: "You know what I'm going to do? I'm going to get me a roll of shelf-paper, feed it into the typewriter, and just write it down as fast as I can, exactly like it happened, all in a rush, the hell with these phony architectures -- and worry about it later" (cited by Ann Charters). Three weeks later, the novel that was an eternal recommencement was finished. Thoughts of Neal Cassady were what got Kerouac out of his funk and rolling with On the Road. Hanging out with Neal, he saw the Roman candle, blazing through life with freedom and fury, and the sight helped him focus. He realized his best model was not Thomas Wolfe, but the extraordinary unknown Neal, and the story of On the Road is the story of their friendship. According to Allen Ginsberg, "Jack finally discovered the kind of things he and Neal were talking about were the subject matter for what he wanted to write down" (quoted by Ann Charters). Kerouac was dazzled by Neal's letter-writing style: powerful geysers, directly erupting experience, oblivious to literary effects. Their immediacy was what Kerouac had spent years searching for. Finally, the long rest imposed by the hospital stay enabled all the novelistic sediment he had accumulated to settle. When Jack got out in early April, he had a clear plan. One morning, Kerouac took the huge roll of paper to Robert Giroux at Harcourt Brace. The scroll was a single paragraph, 120 feet long. "Here's your novel!" he cried. Giroux was taken aback: "But Jack, how can you make corrections on a manuscript like that?" In a rage, Kerouac refused to change a single comma, took his scroll, and vanished (quoted by Ann Charters).
Finding A Place To Park
Months and years went by. A new search had begun: now that Kerouac had found his identity as a writer, he needed a publisher. He submitted the typescript of On the Road 6 times, and got 6 rejection slips. He threw himself into writing other novels, but feelings of bitterness at being misunderstood were overwhelming him. Finally, in 1955, he met Malcolm Cowley, an editorial consultant at Viking Press. Cowley was enthusiastic about On the Road, but asked Kerouac to make some changes. Otherwise, the book was not publishable. It had to be shortened, cleaned up so that the vocabulary conformed to decency laws, and the characters' identities had to be disguised, to avoid libel charges. A battle-weary Kerouac accepted. In fact, he attacked the book with a chain saw. Fortunately, he realized that he was killing his work and at the last minute, he returned to a more faithful version.
The Road To Acceptance
On the Road was published on September 5, 1957, after a nine-year journey into the abyss. Recognition had come too late. That's what Kerouac was hinting at, when he glossed over the book's painful birth. As if to say: "Where were you squares on that April day when I finished the book? That's when we should have met."
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