Oscar Contender 'On the Road' Burns the Candle on Both Ends

The film version of Jack Kerouac's classic novel is worth the 55-year wait.

ByABC News
December 25, 2012, 10:27 PM

Dec. 26, 2012— -- Early on in Walter Salles and José Rivera's adaptation of the classic 1957 Jack Kerouac novel On the Road, the film's narrator, Sal Paradise, makes clear what drives him on his search across America's highways:

The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn, or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding across the stars.

Those mad ones were the nascent "beat" generation of the 1950s, the precursors of what later became known as the counterculture - alternative rockers, hip-hoppers, ravers, and hipsters.

But who were these mad ones, and what were they looking for? It may not be obvious up front, but sometimes they were African-American, or mixed-race, or Latino, and people of color often represented the part of America that wasn't being overrun by the conservative social landscape of the 1950s that On the Road is a gut reaction against.

On the Road has been in the works since at least 1957, when Kerouac wrote a letter to Marlon Brando asking him to play the part of Sal Paradise's road buddy, Dean Moriarty, in a film where Kerouac would play himself (Sal). After Francis Ford Coppola bought the rights in 1979, the project went through several iterations, with directors like Jean-Luc Goddard and Gus Van Sant proposed, and actors like Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt attached.

The production that finally succeeded after so many failed was headed up by Brazilian director Walter Salles and Puerto Rican-born screenwriter/playwright José Rivera, whose collaboration on 2004's The Motorcycle Diaries caught the eye of Coppola's Zoetrope Studios after it screened at the Sundance Film Festival. Salles also brought in Argentine musician and producer Gustavo Santoalalla (Motorcycle Diaries, 21 Grams) to do the score and Lynn Fainchtein (Hecho en Mexico, Amores Perros), who is Mexican, as music supervisor. Still, this French/Brazilian financed production is more than just the flip side of Che Guevara's road trip of self-discovery, made by Latinos on the outside looking in. On the Road, despite being ostensibly an ode to white male bohemia - and heavily banking on the presence of Zeitgeist-tabloid femme fatale Kristen Stewart - reveals the politics of race and sex that are always lurking in any true American story.

With a 21st century twist, Salles and Rivera decided to work mostly from the original version of Kerouac's novel, a 120-foot scroll of teletype paper that the author submitted to publishers. "The scroll is sexier, more adventurous, more blunt," said Rivera from a New York hotel room during one of the film's recent press days. "The scene with Marylou [Kristen Stewart], Sal [Sam Riley] and Dean [Garrett Hedlund] in the car naked was not in the book because that couldn't have passed censorship in 1957." Explicit references to the flagrant bisexuality of Dean Moriarty - who in real life was countercultural gadfly Neal Cassady - and his affair with Carlo Marx, a/k/a famed beat poet Allen Ginsberg, are introduced early in the film but never alluded to in the novel.