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Beat to death: Why there should not be a movie version of On the Road.

April 18, 2011

Although there will, of course. This fall, after nearly half a century, a film version of Jack Kerouac’s classic Beat novel will hit theaters. But it’s a really bad idea — for much the same reason a very different ’50s classic — Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — should have been spared the Hollywood treatment, too.

Two more influential novels can hardly be imagined. Rand’s Atlas Shrugged — actually more a 1,000-page libertarian tract than a novel — has not only inflamed generations of adolescents with its Gospel of Ego, but it has also influenced real-world conservative policy makers from Alan Greenspan to Congressman Paul Ryan by providing philosophical underpinnings for favoring the rich over the poor.

On the Road, by contrast, is the defining narrative of the Beat generation, a counterculture masterpiece named one of the 100 best novels of the 20th century by the Modern Library. It exerts a lasting influence on literature, film and popular music.

Both novels were published in 1957. Both have sold millions over the years — and I caution against the assumption they sold to different audiences. And now, after decades of failed effort, both are rather amazingly being turned into movies in the same year.

Both films are modest productions, too. Atlas Shrugged: Part I (only a portion of the massive novel can fit into a single movie; a trilogy is planned), was directed by the TV actor Paul Johansson on a reported $10 million budget.

Its actors are vaguely familiar, mostly from TV, with Taylor Schilling (who?) in the central role of the glamorous industrialist (yes, you read that right) Dagny Taggart. Probably the most familiar face is Armin Shimmerman, the evil principle from “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” A previous stab at making the movie, with a script by Oscar winner Randall Wallace, had A-listers like Angelina Jolie, Anne Hathaway and Russell Crowe, might have been a fascinating monstrosity, but the deal fell apart.

On the Road, following an equally long and perilous path to the screen, has fared somewhat better. For one thing, it had a $25 million budget–still low by Hollywood standards.  Made by the creative team behind the Che Guevara biopic The Motorcycle Diaries, it features actors with a bit of box office appeal — Kristen (Twilight) Stewart, Kirsten (Spiderman) Dunst, and Viggo (“Aragorn”) Mortenson.

Relative unknowns Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) and Sam Riley (Control) have been cast in the principle roles of Dean Moriarty and Sal Paradise.

Atlas Shrugged premiered April 15 to savage reviews, and not only because critics are all lefty saps. Roger Ebert, who is an outspoken liberal, was all fired up to take on the movie’s Randian themes but found himself disappointed by “the most anticlimactic non-event since Geraldo Rivera broke into Al Capone’s vault. I suspect only someone very familiar with Rand’s 1957 novel could understand the film at all, and I doubt they will be happy with it.”

And there you have the problem in a nutshell. It’s not that Atlas Shrugged is a bad movie because of its extreme right wing themes. It’s not even a bad movie because it’s made from a bad book. It’s a bad movie because the scope of the novel is so grand as to defy ordinary film treatment. Only a talent like Peter Jackson with $100 million at his disposal could hope to do the job.

My expectations for On the Road aren’t much better, despite the higher level of cinematic talent at work. Oh, director Walter Salles and screenwriter Jose Rivera might well be able to turn out an entertaining, possibly moving film following the adventues of characters named “Sal” and”Dean.”

But it won’t be On the Road, because the very act of imposing film structure (beginning, middle, end in three acts) on Kerouac’s lose, aimless countercultural picaresque will negate the entire point of the novel. It would be like turning an improvised jazz solo into a three-minute pop song.

At the risk of appearing a liberal dupe, on the one hand, and a middle-brow philistine on the other, I confess I’m a fan of neither of these books. The reprehensible politics of Atlas Shrugged aside (the rich are better than you and me, and the poor are parasites), it’s just an awful piece of narrative writing, with types and cutouts instead of characters, speaking at one another in essays rather than dialogue.

On the Road is a real piece of writing and I started it in a state of exhilaration, but the lack of structure gradually wearied me and I gave up on the thing somewhere in the middle. Plus, the characters were not changed by their experiences, and I ceased to care about them.

While nothing could induce me to view Atlas Shrugged (except cash payment), I may go see On the Road just for the sake of Gregory Nicosa. As The New York Times reports, none of the actors are old enough to remember the Summer of Love, let alone the Beat generation. Nicosa, author of the definitive Kerouac bio, Memory Babe, was hired to school them on how to talk, move and slouch like the Beats.

If he came anywhere close to succeeding, then it might be something to see.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. Candice Simmons permalink
    April 18, 2011 3:27 pm

    I agree that making a film of ONE THE ROAD will be difficult. But I love the book, and will definitely enter the theatre with an open mind, if not great expectations, when I go to see it.

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 18, 2011 6:35 pm

      I’ve found as a general rule the lower my expectations the more I enjoy a movie. So your strategy is wise, grasshopper.

  2. April 18, 2011 8:39 pm

    What is one to say about this Ayn Rand cult of abysmal ignorance? She’s such a capitalist bully, a would be robber baron, but her followers can’t see it. Alan Greenspan worshipped at her feet and applied her principles from the time of Reagan to W and look at what the phk happened. And the people who put us where we are now are still throwing their “Rand” weight around with impunity. I despair. I met someone at the gym yesterday who said she “can hardly wait” for the movie to come out. And she wants to read the book. God, Chauncey, it’s hopeless I tell you. Down all the days. Wait a minute. One good thing happened today – a Wisconsin senate Republican got recalled. Is that a ray of light I see?

    • Chauncey Mabe permalink*
      April 18, 2011 10:21 pm

      Duff, I agree completely on every point, but let us not forget that the book is an awful piece of writing, too. I mean, just abysmal. It’s a kind of utopian sci-fi and it makes Robert Heinlein (another right-wing nut, but one who could create a decent two-dimensional character and who knew how to keep a story moving) seem like Tolstoy or somebody.

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