Every so often, we get teasers on the movie adaptation of On the Road. Nothing much new in this recent article, other than a hint that we're getting a little closer (for better or worse):
For the past three years, the Brazilian-born Walter Salles, whose new film, Linha de Passe, is released this month, has been working on a version that he hopes to "be shooting either at the end of this year or the beginning of the next". But will it happen? The story of two drifters, Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty – thinly veiled portrayals of the author and his friend, Beat icon Neal Cassady – Kerouac's episodic account of his seven-year span of road trips across America has defied attempts to bring it to the big screen. "It doesn't have a plot," says poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti. "It was a road novel – a picaresque, like Don Quixote."
The first screenwriter to tackle Kerouac's work was Michael Herr, who penned the hypnotic voiceover for Coppola's Apocalypse Now before co-writing Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. Then came Barry Gifford, who not only had experience of the road movie after adapting his Wild at Heart for David Lynch to film but also wrote Jack's Book: An Oral Biography of Jack Kerouac with Lawrence Lee. After these versions were rejected, Coppola himself took a crack, writing a script with his son Roman (who co-wrote the script for another spiritual journey, The Darjeeling Limited).
"I tried to write a script, but I never knew how to do it," Coppola told me last year. "It's hard – it's a period piece. It's very important that it be period. Anything involving period costs a lot of money."
It probably didn't help when it came to convincing financiers that Coppola planned to shoot on black-and-white 16mm film. He held auditions in 1995, with poet Allen Ginsberg (the inspiration for the book's Carlo Marx) in attendance, but the project again collapsed. Then it materialised a few years later, with Coppola again at the helm, and Ethan Hawke and Brad Pitt mooted to play Paradise and Moriarty.
After this version also faltered, Coppola brought in the novelist Russell Banks. It was now 2001 – the year the 120ft scroll of tracing paper on which Kerouac wrote the book was sold at auction for $2.4m – and Joel Schumacher was in line to direct Banks's script. Billy Crudup replaced Hawke, and it was said Schumacher wanted Colin Farrell to play Moriarty. Yet again the project failed. Citing Vietnam and the murder of Martin Luther King as watersheds, Banks says, "You could never have the innocence that On the Road portrays, where two white guys could roll a pack of Luckys in the sleeves of their T-shirts, get in an old Hudson, drive to Denver and think they'd gone to another planet. You could never again have visions of liberation, freedom and control like that."