On the Road's long journey to the big screen

Regarded for decades as one of the world's most elusive unmade movies, the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic novel will finally play at Cannes next week. David Gritten traces its journey.

Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund play Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, in a scene from the forthcoming film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's novel On the Road. Gregory Smith / MK2
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Regarded for decades as one of the most elusive unmade movies, the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac’s classic novel On the Road plays at Cannes next week. David Gritten traces its journey from page to screen

The Cannes film festival starts on Wednesday, with the usual hype, hullabaloo and perennially implicit promise to show some of the best new movies from around the world for the first time. Still, one title above all others this year whets the appetite and piques the curiosity: the film adaptation of Jack Kerouac's classic novel On the Road, the work that gave birth to the term "beat generation".

A movie based on Kerouac’s influential work would be intriguing in itself, but interest has approached fever pitch because the film has been such a long time coming.

Indeed, On the Road may have undergone the longest gestation period in cinema history. In 1968, Francis Ford Coppola, then a rising director-screenwriter still in his twenties, bought the film rights to Kerouac's novel in perpetuity. Even before he had directed The Godfather films or Apocalypse Now, Coppola sincerely intended to make a film of it himself, yet for various reasons the cameras never started rolling. For 44 long years On the Road, widely regarded as one of the 20th century's most influential novels, became one of the great elusive unmade movies. Some commentators wondered out loud that the book might simply be unfilmable.

Unexpectedly, it has taken a Brazilian filmmaker rather than an American to break the impasse. Walter Salles shot On the Road in various American states between August and December 2010, with two relatively unknown actors, Garrett Hedlund (Tron: Legacy) and Britain's Sam Riley (Brighton Rock) in the lead roles. Four months later Salles went out again with a small crew and a 1949 Hudson like the car in Kerouac's novel, covering 4,000 miles of back roads to capture the sights and sounds of the country. It sounds like a fitting way to film a road movie.

And a road movie is what On the Road must inevitably be. Kerouac’s vaguely autobiographical novel recounts the adventures of two rootless American drifters, Sal Paradise (Kerouac’s alter ego) and Dean Moriarty, a thinly disguised version of his friend Neal Cassady, hitchhiking and driving their way across America and living on society’s margins. It is based on the two men’s own adventures as they criss-crossed America in the late 1940s.

Salles's reputation as a great, globally recognised filmmaker rests on two other road movies. His breakthrough in 1998 was Central Station, a story of an elderly woman and a young boy who travel together from Rio de Janeiro through the hinterlands of Brazil in search of the boy's absent father.

In 2004, Salles filmed The Motorcycle Diaries, in which the young Che Guevara and his best friend hop on a motorbike and drive thousands of miles through South America, observing suffering and poverty wherever they go. When Coppola saw The Motorcycle Diaries, he was convinced that Salles was the man to direct On the Road.

The story of how On the Road became a film has assumed the status of legend, but then so did the genesis of the book that inspired it. Kerouac wrote much of it in April 1951, in an astonishing three-week burst of virtually spontaneous prose. His wife Joan fed him coffee to keep him going and pea soup simply to sustain him, and he worked continuously, pausing only to sleep. Famously, before he began writing On the Road, Kerouac taped sheets of teletype paper together into a roll 36.5 metres long, which he fed into his typewriter. This allowed him to compose without stopping.

But the book failed to find favour with publishers, who rejected it, largely on the grounds of its sensational, shocking content. When Viking finally accepted the book (in a revised form) and published it in 1957, Kerouac became famous overnight, and was swiftly bracketed with figures such as Allen Ginsberg and William S Burroughs as part of the beat generation, a group of restless rebels disenchanted with American life.

I've long been interested in Coppola's lengthy struggle to get On the Road made into a film, and first discussed it with him in Paris in 1998. He sighed deeply when I raised the subject. His idea then was to film it almost in the style of a fly-on-the-wall documentary. "I thought maybe I'd shoot it in black and white, on 16-millimetre film," he said. "I tried to make it that way, but I couldn't get any money to do it. Which is too bad, because that story keeps becoming more important."

In 2002, it seemed this impasse might be broken. Coppola's company American Zoetrope announced it would finally make On the Road. Joel Schumacher was due to direct; Coppola said Schumacher wanted Colin Farrell (who he had directed in Tigerland) to play Sal Paradise. The novelist Russell Banks (The Sweet Hereafter, Continental Drift) was writing a script.

But in 2004, Banks told me On the Road was off: "I turned in a script and Francis liked it very much," he said. "Then I heard he wasn't going to do it. I'll frankly be surprised, though of course greatly pleased, if he ever makes it."

In response to Banks, Coppola confirmed he was still "serious" about producing On the Road. Yet he conceded no actors or directors were then attached. "We've learnt that what makes On the Road great as a read is difficult to transpose to cinema," he said. "But we believe we're closer than ever."

By this point the list of actors, directors and screenwriters formerly linked to On the Road was growing steadily. Over the years, Johnny Depp and Brad Pitt were also mentioned for a lead role.

The first screenwriter to have a shot was Michael Herr, the author of Dispatches, an acclaimed book about Vietnam. He first tackled the project in the early 1980s, after he wrote the narration for Coppola's Apocalypse Now. Next up was Barry Gifford, who worked with David Lynch on the scripts of Wild at Heart and Lost Highway (Gifford also co-wrote Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac, in 1978). Coppola and his son Roman worked on a version of On the Road in the 1990s before Banks became the fourth option.

Now the script has been written by the Puerto Rican-born playwright Jose Rivera, who wrote The Motorcycle Diaries for Salles.

Until now, Salles has mostly remained tight-lipped about On the Road, though four years ago in Cannes he said he had already made a documentary retracing the On the Road route.

If a feature film were to happen, he said, he did not want big stars in the lead roles: “That can be distracting.”

As it's turned out, Hedlund and Riley are new to most audiences. But then, it's not a Hollywood studio film; it's financed by France's MK2 and Britain's Film4. Still, there are stellar names in the supporting cast, including Viggo Mortensen (playing a character based on Burroughs), Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Mad Men's Elisabeth Moss.

So finally, it’s shot and ready for screening at Cannes. And the name of the executive producer on its credits? Francis Ford Coppola, of course.