Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" was one of the defining novels of the Beat generation. Based off of his real life adventures with notable figures like Neal Cassady, Allen Ginsberg and William S. Burroughs, the book continues to serve as an inspiration for young hipsters everywhere. With the enduring popularity of "On the Road," it's somewhat surprising that no one has adapted the novel into a film until now.
Then again, after reading the book, it's easy to see why no one has gotten a film adaptation off the ground: there's not really a straight-forward plot to speak of, characters pop in and out at random and the book zigzags across the continent from New York to San Francisco to Mexico and back.
Director Walter Salles ("The Motorcycle Diaries") pares down the novel and emphasizes the relationship between buddies Sal (Sam Riley) and Dean (Garrett Hedlund) and their mutual love interest Marylou (Kristen Stewart). He cuts down on some of the traveling and extraneous character appearances, effectively creating opportunities for a lot of brief cameos from A-list stars (Hey, Viggo Mortensen and Amy Adams!).
If you check out the film adaptation and want to know what you'll be missing by skipping out on all that reading, here's a guide to some of the major differences between the book and the movie.
1. The Original Scroll
While the film is mostly based on what's featured in the novel published in 1957, Salles also borrows from Kerouac's first draft of the book (referred to as the "original scroll"), which was only recently published in a slightly edited form in 2007. This draft uses the real names of the characters (Sal is Jack, Dean is Neal) and features events which were considered too risqué for publication in its time period.
Some elements of the film taken from the scroll include Sal living with his mother (in the book, it's his aunt), an alternate first meeting with Dean and Marylou (in the film and scroll Marylou is lying on a bed topless, but in the book she's clothed jumping on a bed) and the first line of Sal's manuscript ("I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up" becomes "I first met Dean not long after my father died"). As a result, some of the differences between the book and the film actually make it more accurate to Kerouac's original scroll.
2. Sal's Travels
The movie delivers what the title promises: There is a lot of driving, hitchhiking and walking on the road. Yet the film actually cuts out a lot of the Sal's solo travels. The book describes Sal's first trip out west with more detail (Sal travels with a hitchhiker named Eddie for a while), as well as the time he spends in San Francisco working as a security guard. Additionally, Sal travels to Chicago (Dean and Sal drive from Denver to Chicago in 17 hours) and Detroit (in the scroll, his ex-wife lives in Detroit and he tries and fails to get her back), but these trips are also left out, suggesting that there can be too much road in a film called "On the Road."
3. Terry and Her Family
In the film, Sal meets a young woman named Terry (Alice Braga) and carries on a short romance with her. She has a young son, and the couple spends a few weeks together before Sal heads back to the East Coast.
In the novel, we see more of Sal and Terry's relationship. They travel from Los Angeles to Bakersfield and then Sabinal where Terry introduces Sal to the rest of her family including her brother, Rickey. They stay in tents and get jobs picking cotton, and Sal learns to appreciate his role as a contributor to the family. The weather gets colder though, so Terry returns to live at home and Sal heads back to New York.
In the book, their relationship feels like a formative experience for Sal, while in the movie, it comes across as little more than a temporary dalliance.
4. The Many Wives of Dean Moriarty
The film portrays Dean's first two marriages to Marylou and Camille (Kirsten Dunst), neither of which come across as particularly healthy relationships, but in the book Dean also marries a third woman, Inez, who he meets in New York. Dean gets Inez pregnant and lives with her for a short time before the Mexico trip, and after his return they marry, but he heads back to San Francisco and Camille shortly after that.
Dean is already kind of a player, so for him to love and leave yet another woman after impregnating her may have made him more unlikable. Plus, Inez is the least mentioned of the three women, so she is the easiest to excise.
5. Down to Mexico
Dean and Sal's trip down to Mexico represents the "end of the road" for their relationship; leaving a friend alone in Mexico while he's dangerously ill seems like it could do that. In the novel, a third friend, Stan Shephard, comes along as well. Stan doesn't really do much other than get stung by a weird insect, so it's not surprising that the character was left on the chopping block. Yet, if Stan were there while Sal was suffering from his illness, it would make Dean seem like slightly less of a jerk for leaving him in the middle of Mexico.
6. The Ending
Dean and Sal's final meeting on the streets of New York is taken directly from the book, but the film adds a following scene of Sal furiously typing "On the Road." The scene dramatizes how Jack Kerouac typed his entire manuscript on 120 feet of sheets of paper taped together in only three weeks. The book ends on a downbeat note as Sal reflects on his friend left behind on the street, signifying the end of youth and irresponsibility. However, the film emphasizes the novel that came out of the experience, suggesting that even though sometimes our friends are jerks who leave us to die in Mexico, we can still get a great story out of it.