Translating literary classics to the big screen can be a tricky proposition with the odds for success highly variable. Two recent films which attempt to capture the momentum of the Beat Generation illustrate the potential pitfalls as well as the propensity for success.
Director Walter Salles’ late 2012 film of Jack Kerouac’s seminal novel, On the Road, is a case in point. Ironically, the movie, which strives to remain true to Kerouac’s narrative, somehow falls short, perhaps by very dint of Salles’ and cinematographer Jose Rivera’s adherence to a rather plodding realism.
While the novel is a haunting tale about existential emptiness and the manic revels of a group of young, disaffected characters, the strength of its narrative lies less in the plot or even the madness of the players, but rather in Kerouac’s hypnotic prose – in the compelling jazz rhythms of his style which seduce the reader and sweep him along in the flow. Though Kerouac affirms that his characters, particularly his alter-ego protagonist Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady, interest him because of their madness – (the only ones who interest me are the mad ones) –in fact, the novel turns less on character development (which is slight) and more on Kerouac’s epic style which lifts a tale of debauchery and manic indulgence to the mythic heights of an anti-hero rebellion.
Regrettably, the film, which is sometimes punctuated with Kerouac’s text, seems to lose sight after the initial scenes of the author’s words, of the poetry necessary to breathe life into the characters. Sam Riley as Sal Paradise/Jack Kerouac fares best in Salles’ direction since, as narrator, he lends a sympathetic and confessional dimension to the work. All the roles are admirably cast, but the actors often suffer from the insurmountable task of making the audience care about their sad existences. Garrett Hedlund as Dean Moriarty/Neal Cassady rises well to the challenge and is especially touching in the final scenes of his character’s decline. Tom Sturridge as Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg is inspired as the young bacchanalian poet sorting out his sexuality and shaping his voice. Not only does he replicate Ginsberg’s unmistakable mannerisms and speech patterns, but he also manages to elevate the poet’s idiosyncrasy and craziness to the heights of sublimity.
The remaining ensemble is all strongly cast with fine supporting performances from Kristen Stewart as a Lolita-like Marylou/Luanne Henderson, Kirsten Dunst as a conflicted Camille/Carolyn Cassady, Amy Adams as Jane/Joan Vollmer, and Viggo Mortensen as Old Bull Lee/William S. Burroughs.
The ambiance of the film is indebted to painters like The Eight – Bellows, Sloan, for example – and to Hopper and photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans. The unsparing realism of these visual choices, while historically appropriate, lacks much of the romance so palpable in Kerouac’s narrative.
Indeed, for all its merits On the Road fails to do justice to Kerouac’s genius because ultimately the film relies on plot and character rather than poetry.
Focusing on poetry, however, is exactly what the 2010 movie Howl, directed by Rob Epstein and Jeffrey Friedman, does with such panache. This quirky, oddly fascinating hybrid succeeds precisely because of the unconventionality of the cinematic approach.
The film acknowledges that the music and mystery of words are difficult to embody on camera, and, consequently, the creative team eschews linear narrative or slavish realism, opting instead for an episodic structure that combines biopic, courtroom drama, cinema verité, animation, and poetic incantation. The scenes range from an interview with Ginsberg, played incandescently by James Franco, to the San Francisco obscenity trial of Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Howl’s publisher, to Ginsberg’s reading of his poem at City Lights; these are interspersed with short dramatized biographical scenes and tied together seamlessly by the surrealistic animations that illustrate Ginsberg’s text.
Inspired by Ginsberg’s Illuminated Poems, the decision to marry these sometimes Blakean, sometimes graphic novel visions to Franco’s animated reading of Howl is revelatory. With carefully observed gestures and speech rhythms, Franco not only captures the historical Ginsberg, but he also breathes life into the poet’s words with Olympian fervor. With wit and passion Franco seduces his audience in the same way that Ginsberg did his rapt contemporaries at the City Lights bookshop reading.
Though these recitations, as well as the interview scenes and the trial sequence employ actual transcripts, they somehow never lose their imaginative flair. Especially in the absurdity of much of the trial testimony, the filmmakers have realized that in cases like this, unembellished fact is often more powerful than melodramatized fiction. Thanks to strong performances by David Strathairn as the befuddled prosecutor, Jon Hamm as Ferlinghetti’s eloquent defense attorney, Bob Balaban as the savvy magistrate, Mary Louise Parker and Jeff Daniels as pompous academics, the film recreates the landmark trial with just the right mixture of irony and crusading fervor.
Similarly accomplished cameos are delivered by actors playing the other Beats, among them Todd Rotondi as an elusive Kerouac, Jon Prescott as Neal Cassady (Ginsberg’s hero of these poems), Andrew Rogers as a stoic Ferlinghetti, and Aaron Tveit as Ginsberg’s lover and lifetime partner, Peter Orlovsky. Though the scenes between Orlovsky and Ginsberg are fleeting, they are memorable for the aesthetic, Michelangelo-esque beauty of the visuals. Deeply tender and passionate and played with both ecstatic abandon and tasteful restraint, they paint a moving picture of a loving partnership.
As a film, Howl is an assemblage of seemingly small fragments which – much like Ginsberg’s verse – float, swirl, fuse, and mount to an eddying climax. Like Walt Whitman, one of Ginsberg’s inspirations, the poet of Howl contains multitudes; the rhythm of his words celebrates the diverse and incongruous, the mad and the blessed, the dissonances and harmonies of life.
Where the film Howl succeeds and its cinematic counterpart On the Road fails is that the Epstein/Friedman movie is not afraid to draw its substance solely from those words and to embellish them in the hands of consummate actors.