Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Book Adaptations / On The Road.


Literary adaptations to the screen occur for all sorts of reasons. Whilst some come from a personal attachment a filmmaker with integrity may have to a particular book, the vast majority are elicited by indiscriminately cashing in on the popularity of whatever printed prose is out there. This form of cultural cannibalism has accompanied Cinema since its incipience and is invariably an act of reaching out to an audience which may want to see a novel they cherish "brought to life". This is quite an assumption, which in turn leads to a fundamental contradiction.

The relationship one establishes with a book is more than private. It's an internal rapport lasting for the length of the read and beyond, simply because it's our own voice we hear when we're reading - and because what the paragraphs, chapters and pages then formulate is immediately transfused into our perception of life. As readers, we make our own film, regardless of the novel at hand having already been adapted countless times. A film coming from a literary source is always filtered through somebody else's sensitivity.

Yet, book adaptations to the screen are not entirely pointless exercises. They can lead to a renewed surge of interest in what would otherwise remain an obscure or overlooked novel - probably the best consequence I can think of. They can also, still on a positive note, re-invigorate a classic, by giving it an original treatment and approaching its core message in a manner that becomes relevant to our times.

But the perspective I'm most interested in is that of the filmmaking process itself. To address it comprehensively, I would at least require this entire issue of Now Then, so instead I will punctuate my very narrow experience in adapting published fiction with a few examples of success and failure in that regard.

My Film Studies final year dissertation was on book adaptations - unfilmable books, to be more precise, or books that had been considered unfilmable, due to content or form, but which made some remarkable and controversial films in the right hands.

William Burroughs's Naked Lunch and its subsequent adaptation by David Cronenberg in 1991 were prominent, but so was A Clockwork Orange, transposed from the Anthony Burgess's novel by Stanley Kubrick 20 years earlier, along with JG Ballard's Crash, again made tangible by Cronenberg in 1996.

Preceding it all was an assignment to adapt a short story. Always keen not to make it easy for myself, I picked a self-contained section of Vladimir Nabokov's Lolita, which had been excluded from both big screen adaptations: Kubrick's brilliantly restrained 1962 version (with a script by the author himself) and Adrian Lyne's softcore, literal but arguably more faithful 1997 attempt.

Once given the green light, I immersed myself in a part of the story that is very much about Lolita's absence and found great pleasure in structuring a script around Nabokov's superb prose. It spoke very clearly to me. Of course, description was easily copied and pasted into the setting of a scene, but it was also smoothly converted into atmosphere with psychological depth made visual.

This was the first of only three literary adaptations I made in twelve years, none of which has been "fortunate enough" to reach the production stage. Still, the process was a tremendous exercise of discipline which vaguely coincided with getting acquainted with another script that was never made into a film.

Harold Pinter's 1973 adaptation of all the volumes from Marcel Proust's A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu into a 166-page screenplay for director Joseph Losey is the best film never made. I sought after it like a ravenous wild dog, at the time even requesting Waterstones to order one of the few Faber and Faber copies in print from out of town.

Reading it was like a blood transfusion. Suddenly, it was there, written a few years before I was born; a distillation of the essence of the book into film language. Pinter understood that Cinema is the utterly perfect vehicle to express conscience and memory and that it should do so in its own terms, distinguishing it from a novel.

Like everything Pinter adapted, the Proust screenplay displays a highly pertinent economy of description and dialogue. It is far more incisive than other subsequent Proustian adaptations that saw the light of day, from Volker Schlöndorff's sullen Swann in Love (1984) to Raul Ruiz's lavish Le Temps Retrouvé (1999).

It is a copy of the Proust volume Swann's Way that the character Dean Moriarty clutches in various scenes of the big screen adaptation of yet another influential literary work. On The Road, from Jack Kerouac's generation-defining book, had been in development hell for decades. Well, that's where it should've remained, because "paradise" starts and ends on the central character's surname. A film which had so much going for it selfcombusts even before the end of the first reel.

Read Alex Murray's more in-depth review alongside this piece, but I would like to highlight two key aspects that condemn this adaptation: the poorly developed connections between the characters, which never reach any level of believable intensity, be it intellectual, emotional or sexual; and the truncation of the more explicit content for the Anglo-Saxon audience, which could at least explain one aspect of the previous point. I spent the entire screening thinking: "How can you rush through that one!?" Or: "That's good. Don't cut away yet... Damn, too late."

There's a difference between narrative/visual economy and lack of confidence in your own material, or in the audience's ability to stay with characters in a scene. This goes beyond adaptation, but On The Road is certainly guilty of the latter. It fails to convey what a creative mind taking in a world in motion looks like - something that not even the right sound of a voiceover narration can rescue.



On The Road charts Jack Kerouac's journey from buttoned-up Catholic with writer's block to prolific proto gonzo. It's the story of a road trip with Dionysian Dean Moriarty through the subcultural America he made visible. Sadly, in the 55 years since publication, Kerouac's vivacious message has become trite, spawning a cult(ure) of youth that fabricates its own authenticity. Much mainstream culture we despair of today has its origins in Kerouac's beat aesthetic: the elusive "it" he pursues has ultimately spawned X Factor, and his treatment of women as emotional gas stations - places to fill up on esteem and leave before paying - sets the modern ground rules for beta male misogyny.

Walter Salles' 15-rated film could never hope to enact such an X-rated story, with Jose Rivera's adaptation plumbing for "pretty" over "gritty". Kerouac stand-in Sal Paradise is played by Sam Riley, who has become known for flawless mimicry, his Ian Curtis in Control (2007) a sign of an empty hologram-like presence.

The film's sepia tones conceal a shadowy cycle of abuse. Sal uses Dean for inspiration, Dean uses Marylou (Kristen Stewart) and Camille (Kirsten Dunst) for kicks, and black culture is plundered for its exotic otherness. Marylou and Camille are ciphers for the beats' disavowed destiny - children and the responsibility they bestow - and yet both manage more emotional depth than the unlikeable triumvirate of Sal, Dean and Carlo combined.

The book is conceived as the film ends. It's a manifesto for a new way of living, an autobiography acting as a future map of America. Sal's breathless narrative, typed faster than he can think on an endless roll of paper, attempts to express a less mediated and thus more complete account of events. Dean's prop in the film is a worn copy of Swann's Way, the first volume of Proust's A La Recherché Du Temps Perdu, which promised a real-time map of the author's life. Yet as Borges pointed out, a perfectly accurate map would have a 1:1 scale, as big as the territory it portrays. Instead of absolute truth, Kerouac has to make do with photovoltaic prose that jumps between the journey's strobes of insight, while Salles' film makes a further reduction down to a sequence of flat, fake period postcards of profound meaninglessness.

Rivera's overdue adaptation has come too late and truncates an American creation myth into a facile exercise in style. This is On The Road, the Instagram Redux: beautifully inauthentic and perfectly passionless.


29th November.
Reviewer - Alex Fenton-Thomas

Warp Films emerged from the pioneering heart of South Yorkshire dance music, Warp Records, and has since made a name for itself as an uncompromising champion of independent film. The hugely successful This is England and the accompanying TV adaptations were many people's first taste of their particular brand of British cinema, but Chris Morris' Four Lions and Richard Ayaoade's debut Submarine have also proved huge successes recently.

With a back catalogue like that it's a testament to their connection to Sheffield and its ethos that Warp Films decided to screen the heart-wrenchingly dark, uncompromisingly brutal revenge thriller Dead Man's Shoes in the austere grandeur of Magna for their tenth anniversary showcase. And if Magna's vast, post-apocalyptic vibe wasn't chilling enough, artists from the original soundtrack were commissioned to re-score the film as it enfolded in front of you.

A live rendition of the original score would have been a spectacle, but the subtle re-scoring added something imposing to the original earthy soundtrack. The haunting voice of Shane Meadows' hometown friend Gavin Clark, whose band Clayhill appeared on the original soundtrack, echoed around the cavernous room. Sometimes pieces of dialogue were lost, but the music spoke for itself during long crescendos that complimented some of the film's heart-stopping moments perfectly.

The main event over, hundreds of people who had been sat on the floor in this sensory battlefield peeled themselves off the temporary carpet and headed to the bar. Many took the chance to reflect on what they'd seen by wandering around Magna's exhibits, including the Big Melt room, which is even more eerie at night, half-cut, having watched Dead Man's Shoes, than it usually is.

Some made use of the all-night cinema room, which was showing the Warp films Submarine, Four Lions, Kill List and Berberian Sound Studio.

Others shook themselves out of their post-film stupor and danced to DJ sets by actors from some of Warp's iconic films. Viccy McClure, who played Lol in This is England, Shane Meadows, Richard Hawley and Kayvan Novak, who manages to be Waj from Four Lions as well as Fonejacker, all played seven 7-inch records close to their hearts.

As the night went on, the music became more and more enjoyable, as Tom Ravenscroft's eclectic afrobeat and grunge set followed Pablo Clements' weird selection of sugary Motown. But the musical highlight came in the form of Andrew Weatherall's old-school acid techno selection, which finished the night on a high and helped whip everyone into a writhing mass of bleepy post-industrial bliss.


Next from Filmreel

The best and worst of 2012 and 2013.

KILLING THEM SOFTLY. Cult director Andrew Dominik is not someone that many people could pick out in a crowd, but if I was to mention films…

More Filmreel

More Film

More Film