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Driving Kerouac's 'On the Road' to the big screen

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'On the Road'
"On the Road" is based on the real life adventures of Beat Generation writer Jack Kerouac and his friend Neal Cassady. Sal Paradise, played by Sam Riley, is based on Kerouac and Dean Moriarty, played by Minnesotan Garrett Hedlund, on Cassady. Marylou - Kristen Stewart of 'Twilight' fame -- is based on Cassady's first wife Luanne Henderson.
Image courtesy IFC Films/Gregory Smith

For more than 50 years Jack Kerouac's novel "On the Road" has ignited the imaginations of young people yearning for the freedom of adulthood. Yet it's taken until now for the story to become a feature film.

The film opens this weekend in Minneapolis. It took years of preparation to make, Brazilian director Walter Salles said.

 Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" tells the story Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, young men struggling against the conformity of 1950's America. Both dream of being writers, but it's Sal Paradise who most often scribbles in his notebook.

  "It wasn't only because I was a writer and needed new experiences that I wanted to know Dean more," Paradise says in the movie. "But because somehow he reminded me of some long lost brother. In the west he'd spent a third of his time in the pool hall, a third in jail and a third in the public library." 

"On the Road is loosely based on Kerouac's own life, and that of his friend Neal Cassady. In the novel, as in real life, they crisscross the country, looking for adventure, love and enlightenment among the poets, writers and hipsters of the Beat Generation.

  "It's one of those books that are so unique and personal that they become absolutely universal," Salles said. 

  Salles knows this from personal experience. He read the book as a young man growing up in Brazil as it groaned under a military dictatorship.

Walter Salles
Brazilian director Walter Salles first read Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" while growing up under that country's military dictatorship, and longing for the freedoms he found in the book. He has since read the novel dozens of times, and spent five years retracing Kerouac's travels and meeting survivors of the Beat Generation, in preparation for making the film.
MPR Photo/Euan Kerr

  "There was torture, there was exile," he recalls. "And the characters in 'On the Road' were in search of all the possible forms of freedom that we were not allowed to investigate.

  There have been previous attempts to make a movie of "On the Road." Salles believes his is the fifteenth, but only the first to make it to the screen.

"I think it is one of the most beautiful narratives about the transition from youth to adulthood, with all the moments of pain but also of bliss that come with it." 

  Over the years he has only come to appreciate Kerouac's genius more. 

    "I probably read it 70 or 80 times," he said. "And there wasn't one where I didn't discover something that I haven't perceived before."   

Salles is no stranger to filming iconic books. He adapted Ernesto Che Guevara's "Motorcycle Diaries." It details a ride down the length of South America which formed many of the ideas which later drove Guevara's career as an armed revolutionary. In preparation for that film Salles made the same trip twice. 

"I think it is one of the most beautiful narratives about the transition from youth to adulthood, with all the moments of pain but also of bliss that come with it."

  For "On Road" he traveled again -- for five years.

  "Retracing the paths that Kerouac took at the time," Salles said. "Talking to the characters of the book who are still alive. Talking with such Beat poets as Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Michael McClure, the extraordinary Gary Snyder."  

The research and rereading focused Salles on aspects in the story he wanted to explore.

"I became more interested by the fact that the two main characters Sal and Dean were in search of lost fathers, but were themselves incapable of being fathers," he said.      Salles says Dean is deserting his own children just as his father deserted him. He says Sal's fathering issues are not with a child, but with the book he is trying to write.

"To the old men," Dean says in the film, lifting a beer bottle.  

"Yeah, to the good, old, dead, demented men we love," Sal responds, holding up his own beer  

"And to the West!" Dean finishes, the two clinking their bottles together. 

Salles understands how protective some readers might feel about 'On the Road.' Ultimately, he wants his movie to be in service of the book.  

"Even for those who may believe that it should never be translated into a film, I do hope it will make them cherish the book even more-so," Salles laughs.

And maybe like him, cause them to read Kerouac's masterpiece again and again.