“Mad to Be Saved”: On the Road as Cautionary Tale

Like most people who actually read On the Road, I did so at an impressionable age. Though I grew up in the 1980s rather than the 1950s, my late-teenage self responded immediately to Kerouac’s visionary prose, the hero Dean Moriarty’s epic restlessness, and the fundamentally spiritual urge the proto-Beats had to see more, be more, do more. To me, although I could not yet articulate it, this was a mystical pull, a yen for sacred experience—and for truth.

In 2010, James Franco played a young Allen Ginsberg in Howl; this year Kerouac meets the screen in Brazilian director Walter Salle’s On the Road—and the juxtaposition between the two films is striking. Where Ginsberg’s quest in Howl was depicted in spiritual as well as psycho-sexual terms, the choices made by the filmmakers in On the Road render its characters merely reckless. On the Road ends up being a curiously moralistic tale, warning against the very behaviors the book seemed to celebrate. 

“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 like spiders across the stars and in the middle you see the blue centerlight pop and everybody goes ‘Awww!’” 

This passage is the spiritual epicenter of the novel, and it makes an appearance in the film as well, earnestly intoned by Sam Riley (as Kerouac’s alter ego Sal Paradise). In the book, it’s almost an incantation, part of a paean to freedom in newly-postwar America. The country is settling down, and Kerouac’s circle, led by Neal Cassady/Dean Moriarty, is hitting the road. “Somewhere along the line I knew there’d be girls, visions, everything,” Kerouac writes. “Somewhere along the line, the pearl would be handed to me.” The religious dimension of this quest is obvious; they’re looking for visions, for the pearl, for authenticity and transcendence. 

In the film version, they’re mainly getting laid a lot. I admired the frank sexuality of On the Road, which pulls no punches: there’s on-screen buggery, ménage a trois, and plenty of hooking up between the main characters, male and female. We even get to see Kristen Stewart (of Twilight and tabloid fame) naked. But between the sex, the drugs, and the booze, the sense one gets of Dean Moriarty is that he’s just a wild man. Sal Paradise, meanwhile, is the more careful observer; Nick Carraway to Dean’s Jay Gatsby. By the end of the film, Dean is ruined, while Sal has gone on to some kind of respectable, middle-class existence, and it is from that perch that Sal at last can tell his tale on that one famous roll of teletype paper. 

In other words, On the Road the story is here positioned as a work of nostalgia, a cautionary tale about the allure, and dangers, of the wild. Sal has grown up, like Prince Hal into King Henry, and while he looks back with fondness on the adventures of his youth, it’s a good thing he knew when to stop. Unlike Dean.

To be fair, there are currents of this ambivalence in the book as well; these characters are not heroes but often sad, broken young men in search of meaning. But the stakes are higher there, for Dean, Sal, Dean’s girlfriend Marylou, and the other characters. They’re rebelling against something, even if they can’t articulate it, and they’re chasing something important, even if that, too, is difficult to convey. In the film, there is something exuberant about their quest, but it’s a little empty, too. And that hollowness is all that remains at the end, as Dean leaves behind a trail of broken relationships and dreams. 

I’m not here to kvetch about the adaptation of a landmark book into film. That is boring. And I really enjoyed On the Road the movie, which features some truly inspired casting (Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams, as William S. Burroughs/Bull Lee and his wife, steal the film during their episode), excellent performances all around, and a much stronger integration of the writer’s voice with the action of the film than, for example, the somewhat clunky Howl.

What I am interested in is the way in which On the Road’s spiritual essence has been diluted in this particular adaptation. Howl, for all its flaws, maintained Ginsberg’s spiritual center; its sensuality is, as James Franco emotes in the “Footnote to Howl,” holy. And you feel it, in that film: as Ginsberg finds redemption in love and art and experience, he awakens to the holiness of sex, embodiment, even sadness and rage. Ginsberg/Carlo Marx in the film On the Road, however, comes off merely as sexually frustrated. His sex with Dean isn’t redemptive, but a little pathetic, as Carlo yearns for a love that Dean can never fully give him.  

With the sensual spirituality (or spiritual paganism, if you like) secularized into mere “kicks,” the moral balance of On the Road lurches to one side. In the book, there’s a productive tension between the evanescent, yet incandescent, mysticism of pure human experience on the one hand, and the deep ethical consequences of human relationship on the other. This is a crucial and recurring religious polarity, between the immediacy of spirit and the temporality of ethics, between the circle and the line, the Now and what’s next. But take out the spirituality of one side, and what’s left is an almost puritanical judgment on the other.

Thus this film comes off as a kind of cautionary tale, warning against Dean’s hedonism even as it exults in it. The real caution, however, lies in the film’s own tendency to secularize sensuality—precisely to reduce it to hedonism. This shifting calculus of joy flattens the holy into the merely exciting, and justifies those who seek to repress it.