Beat writers to get the Hollywood treatment

Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs feature in three new films
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The Independent Culture

They were hailed as the greatest minds of their generation; but despite their drug-induced, jazz-fuelled exploits, which helped to introduce the notion of youth culture to Cold-War America, the adventures of Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg have for some reason evaded proper treatment on the big screen.

Now three films are in production, aiming finally to capture the true characters of the three writers whose messages of personal freedom and non-conformity changed US society.

On the Road, a film of Kerouac's pivotal 1957 novel about his backpacking trips across America, is being turned into a film by the team behind The Motorcycle Diaries, with Francis Ford Coppola producing.

Kerouac also makes an appearance in Howl, a film that covers the 1957 obscenity trial faced by Ginsberg's publisher on account of his long poem of that name, starring James Franco and Alan Alda.

And there is a movie in the pipeline about Lucien Carr, the friend who brought Kerouac, Ginsberg and Burroughs together, and his murder of a gay stalker which Kerouac and Burroughs helped to cover up in 1944.

A film of On the Road has been mooted for nearly 30 years. Coppola bought the rights in 1979 and since then there have been numerous abortive attempts to produce a script. Now, with Walter Salles and Jose Riveras on board – the director and screenwriter of The Motorcycle Diaries, about the young Che Guevara's formative trip through South America – the cameras are rolling, and the film is due for release next year.

The independent film company Killer Films, which was behind the star-studded 2007 biopic of Bob Dylan, I'm Not There, has also announced that it is to make Kill Your Darlings, starring the English actor Ben Whishaw as Lucien Carr, who stabbed his gay stalker, David Kammerer, to death. Kerouac and Burroughs told the story in And the Hippos Were Boiled in Their Tanks, which they co-wrote in 1945 and which was published for the first time last year.

The poem Howl, another milestone of countercultural literature, raged against the conformity of 1950s America and was prosecuted because of its references to drug-taking and homosexuality. The film will also be a biopic of Ginsberg, who died in 1997.

It's not the first time film has tackled the Beats, but previous efforts, such as David Cronenberg's 1991 film of William Burroughs's novel The Naked Lunch, proved to be off-beat movies with little mainstream appeal.

Professor Nicholas Lawrence of the University of Warwick says there are parallels between now and the 1950s which give the Beats new appeal.

"We've just come out of a regressive and free-speech-threatening period in US history, and the reaction to this is still unfolding," he said. "There are a lot of parallels between now and the 1950s, such as conformism, repression of speech. The Beats were a counter to that – Ginsberg was an openly gay poet with a Communist mother connected to the radical left."

Martin Halliwell, professor of American studies at the University of Leicester and author of American Culture in the 1950s, agreed.

"These new films emphasise that tensions between conformity and personal freedom are as resonant now as they were in the 1950s," he said. "On the Road celebrates unconstrained freedom but ends up back in the north-east, where the journey began, and Howl sees both sexual freedom and social destruction inscribed on the bodies of the young."

Nick James, the editor of the British Film Institute's Sight and Sound magazine, added that the 1950s were ripe for re-examination.

"The 1950s have a habit of coming back every once in a while," he said. "Before, it might have been Elvis or rock'n'roll. This may be the moment to look at the rougher side of the 1950s."