Jack Kerouac's classic finally gets the Hollywood treatment

Almost half a century after it was written, 'On the Road' is at last to be made into a feature film. David Usborne explains why the novel that defined the Beat Generation is still powerful today   At last, 48 years after a new talent blazed into flame in American literature, Francis Ford Coppola is to film Jack Kerouac's seminal road novel that spoke for so many. By David Usborne

The long wait has only heightened the expectations of a project that will run the risk of disappointing the millions of Kerouac disciples for whom the book, published in 1957, was a near-sacred text of rebellious self-discovery and literary exuberance.

Taking the cinematic risk is Francis Ford Coppola. His production company, American Zoetrope, has owned the rights to On the Road since 1979. After several false starts, he appears finally to have given the film the green light, with casting and pre-production to begin early next year.

The book is a thinly disguised autobiographical account of Kerouac's boozy hitch-hiking adventures across the US and Mexico in the early 1950s. It is narrated by his alter-ego, Sal Paradise, who travels with his womanising and irrepressible best friend, Dean Moriarty, in real life Neal Cassady.

Excitement about the film is growing with Coppola's final choice of director and writer. Respectively, they are Walter Salles and Jose Rivera, who together created another road movie that met with considerable critical success, The Motorcycle Diaries (2004). That chronicled the journey of a young Ernesto "Che" Guevara through South America, also in the 1950s, before he became the leftist revolutionary icon of Cuba. The Mexican star Gael Garcia Bernal played Guevara.

The hope of Coppola and his new team is that On the Road will become a road movie as important to cinema as the novel was to American literature. But no one says it will be easy.

"The book is inherently difficult to adapt to the screen, and we've never quite found the right combination of director and writer to do it justice until now," Coppola, the director of Apocalypse Now, told The Hollywood Reporter. As Kerouac fans know, he helped start the "stream of consciousness" school of writing, which makes for astonishing word flourishes but often pays little or no heed to traditional narrative structures or even plot-lines. It was a style that was also called "spontaneous prose" by critics at the time.

David Brinkley, the well-known Kerouac scholar, said: "If you read On the Road it's a valentine to the United States ... pure poetry for almost a boy's love for his country that's just gushing in its adjectives and descriptions" On the Road which became one of the world's biggest sellers and is translated today into 47 languages, follows Paradise as he hitches rides with strangers in cars, rides in the empty freight carriages of trains with American hobos, forges fleeting friendships and struggles with fraught feelings of doubt and loneliness.

As Paradise, Kerouac wrote: "The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live with, 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 then in the middle you see the blue centrelight pop and everybody goes 'AWWW!'"

Only three years ago, it appeared Coppola had at last hired the US writer Russell Banks, author of the Sweet Thereafter, to write the Kerouac script. Banks went so far as to announce his new task while visiting the Edinburgh Festival in 2002, but the agreement with Coppola fell through. At the time, Coppola had also provisionally engaged Joel Schumacher to direct the film. It was said at the time that Brad Pitt might play Paradise.

The rumour now is that the lead role will go instead to the stage and film actor Billy Crudup. There is no word of the possible involvement of Pitt, but there has been speculation that the part of Moriarty could go to the Irish actor Colin Farrell. Despite its history as a road movie project that never seems able to hit the hard-top, Zoetrope says this time the project really is a certainty. "There have been several scripts over the years but this looks like it," insisted Kathleen Talbert, a spokesman for Coppola, who originally had it in mind to shoot the film on 16mm film in black and white. Coppola's own portfolio of movies also includes 1974's The Godfather Part II and American Graffiti (1973).

Others in Kerouac's entourage of West Coast, counter-culture friends included Allen Ginsberg, the poet of Howl fame, and William S Burroughs, the author, both of whom appear in the book respectively as Carlo Marx and Old Bull Lee.

Born in 1922, Kerouac died from alcoholism in 1969. He was married by then to Stella Sampas and they lived in St Petersburg Florida, to be close to Kerouac's mother, Gabrielle. He was famous among friends for being able to drink as many as 17 straight shots of whiskey in just one hour. The autopsy said the cause of death was cyrrhosis of the liver.

By then he was the undisputed figurehead and prophet of the American Beat Generation, but always a reluctant one. He was 47 when he died and had just $91 in his pocket. "He never wanted to be part of a cultural movement," Garry Snyder, a poet who shared his home with Kerouac, said. "He wanted to be a writer".

Not that Kerouac was unaware of the critical peaks he had already reached as a writer. A former girlfriend, who met him through a blind date organised by Ginsberg just nine months before the release of On the Road, said on the day of publication he did not have the money in his pocket to buy even a bus ticket to New York.

When The New York Times reviewed the work and compared Kerouac to Ernest Hemingway, he was overwhelmed. "Jack went to bed obscure and woke up famous," the girlfriend, Joyce Johnson, said.

Indeed, a second film biopic about Kerouac may soon also in be production, based on a memoir written by Johnson and her years with Kerouac entitled Minor Characters. She may be played by Scarlett Johannson or Chloe Sevigny, Hollywood sources say. If anyone says the moment has passed to make a film of the book, Salles, 49, who is from Braz-il, will strongly disagree. He said: "On the Road is a seminal book that gave voice to a whole generation, capturing its hunger for experience, unwillingness to accept imposed truths and dissatisfaction with the status quo. It is as modern today as it was four decades ago."

Kerouac famously wrote the book on a single scroll of paper 120ft long fed into his typewriter. Fans imagined it poured out of him in one white-hot eruption of inspiration, but in truth he is said to have toiled over the words for as long as any other writer. Some have compared his time at the typewriter to the toils of a jazz musician composing music that is full inspiration but crafted with meticulous care.

"Whatever you feel, that's the way jazz musicians do it," Mr Brinkley said. "What [he] also knew was that ... people such as Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie were skilled, crafted musicians. This didn't just come out of a whim."

Other books written by Kerouac include Big Sur, The Dharma Bums, The Subterraneans, Dr Sax, Mexico City Blues and Tristessa. The original manuscript of On the Road went for auction in 2001 and fetched an astonishing $2.4m (£1,600,000), providing fresh testament to Kerouac's status as an icon. The buyer was Jack Irsay, a prominent American football team owner. There is a Jack Kerouac school of creative writing in Orlando, Florida, where he lived as a young man. This year, Massachusetts declared that 12 March would be "Jack Kerouac Day" in the state.

He was born in Lowell, Massachusetts, as Jean-Louis Lebris de Kerouac to parents from French-speaking Quebec in Canada. He began speaking English only when he attended school aged six. After shining in high school as an American football quarterback, he landed a reporting job on the Lowell Sun newspaper, his first brush with writing for a living.

A section of the film will be shot in San Francisco, which Paradise, on his approach into it, describes as "the fabulous white city on her 11 mystic hills with the blue Pacific and its advancing wall of potato-patch fog beyond, and smoke and goldenness in the late afternoon of time".

Die-hard fans of Kerouac can only now keep their fingers crossed that the book they love so much does not become mangled on its journey, at last, to the big screen. For some, the fear of sacrilege may be too much. Kerouac once said: "Offer them what they secretly want and they, of course, immediately become panic-stricken."

The roll-call of road movies

EASY RIDER (1969)

This was a tale of the search for freedom in conformist and corrupt America gripped by paranoia, bigotry, violence and Vietnam protest. The odyssey of two bikers reflected the collapse of the idealism of the 1960s.

VANISHING POINT (1971)

Part art film, this is one man's existential high-speed drive across the stunning scenery of America's West, chased by the law and guided by a blind disc jockey. It is, in part, a social commentary on the changing mood of America, to a rock soundtrack.

BADLANDS (1973)

It is based on the real-life murder spree of Charles Starkweather and his girlfriend, Caril Ann Fugate, in 1958. Kit Carruthers and girlfriend Holly Sargis from Fort Dupree, South Dakota, are on the run after killing Holly's father. They cross the Dakota Badlands leaving a trail of random murders. On the surface it's just another rural-gangster movie, but the film is distinguished by Martin Sheen's superb performance, Sissy Spacek's artless narration, Malick's masterful composition, and Tak Fujimoto's poetic cinematography.

THELMA AND LOUISE (1991)

Ridley Scott's film starred Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon, who hit the road, take a wrong turn, and the law gives chase. Thelma and Louise transformed the waitress and the housewife from victims of circumstance into icons of feminism.

MOTORCYCLE DIARIES (2004)

The journey of self-discovery across Latin-America by the young Ernesto 'Che' Guevara, with his best friend, Alberto Granado. The film by Brazilian director Walter Salles is part buddy movie, part social commentary.

Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Go figure: Matt Parker, wearing the binary code scarf knitted by his mother
comedy Mathematician is using comedy nights to teach and preach sums
Arts and Entertainment
Ryan Gosling in 'Drive'
filmReview: Ryan Gosling is still there, but it's a very different film
Arts and Entertainment
Urban explorer: Rose Rouse has documented her walks around Harlesden, and the people that she’s encountered along the way
books Rouse's new book discusses her four-year tour of Harlesden
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
film
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Orson Welles made Citizen Kane at 25, and battled with Hollywood film studios thereafter
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Franco Zeffirelli's production of 'Aida' at Milan's famed La Scala opera house
operaLegendary opera director in battle with theatre over sale of one of his 'greatest' productions
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Juergen Wolf won the Young Masters Art Prize 2014 with his mixed media painting on wood, 'Untitled'
art
Arts and Entertainment
Iron Man and Captain America in a scene from
filmThe upcoming 'Black Panther' film will feature a solo black male lead, while a female superhero will take centre stage in 'Captain Marvel'
Arts and Entertainment
The Imperial War Museum, pictured, has campaigned to display copyrighted works during the First World War centenary
art
Arts and Entertainment
American Horror Story veteran Sarah Paulson plays conjoined twins Dot and Bette Tattler
tvReview: Yes, it’s depraved for the most part but strangely enough it has heart to it
Arts and Entertainment
The mind behind Game of Thrones George R. R. Martin
books

Will explain back story to fictional kingdom Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Dorothy in Return to Oz

film Unintentionally terrifying children's movies to get you howling (in fear, tears or laughter)
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robert James-Collier as under-butler Thomas

TVLady Edith and Thomas show sad signs of the time
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Dad's Army cast hit the big screen

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling is releasing a new Harry Potter story about Dolores Umbridge

books
Arts and Entertainment
On The Apprentice, “serious” left the room many moons ago and yet still we watch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor finds himself in a forest version of London in Doctor Who episode 'In the Forest of the Night'
TVReview: Is the Doctor ever going stop frowning?
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from David Ayer's 'Fury'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift performs at the 2014 iHeart Radio Music Festival
music review
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Anderson plays Arthur Shelby in Peaky Blinders series two
tvReview: Arthur Shelby Jr seems to be losing his mind as his younger brother lets him run riot in London
Arts and Entertainment
Miranda Hart has called time on her award-winning BBC sitcom, Miranda
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Sir Nicholas Serota has been a feature in the Power 100 top ten since its 2002 launch
art
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

    Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
    The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

    Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

    Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
    Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

    What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

    Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
    A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

    Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

    Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
    Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

    'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

    A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

    Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

    The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
    Paul Scholes column: Beating Manchester City is vital part of life at Manchester United. This is first major test for Luke Shaw, Angel Di Maria and Radamel Falcao – it’s not a game to lose

    Paul Scholes column

    Beating City is vital part of life at United. This is first major test for Shaw, Di Maria and Falcao – it’s not a game to lose
    Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

    Frank Warren column

    Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
    Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

    Adrian Heath's American dream...

    Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
    Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

    Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
    Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

    A Syrian general speaks

    A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    ‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

    Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
    Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

    Fall of the Berlin Wall

    History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
    How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

    Turn your mobile phone into easy money

    There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes