“…all over America, high school and college kids thinking, ‘Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitch hiking’…while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded…” ~ Big Sur
I waited a long time to read Big Sur. In fact, I only just read it for the first time recently, after my first exposure to Kerouac‘s On The Road almost 12 years ago, and digging through everything of his I could get my hands on quickly thereafter. Knowing where it placed chronologically in his writing life seemed a bit too much to bear. It was, for me, like keeping the genie in the bottle for a while, holding Kerouac in that place of his youth where all things were good and possible for him, and for me.
But now that I’ve matured a bit, I figured it time to read Kerouac’s last novel detailing his nervous breakdown. Maybe it had something to do with my own 40th birthday on the horizon. Perhaps it had something to do with revisiting the heroes of my youth. Either way, the book felt unabashedly honest. Like a friend you’ve known for years laying everything on the table even though it doesn’t precisely line up with your picture of them.
Turning the sort of novel that relies so heavily on words, on personal confession, into a movie is a special kind of challenge that not every filmmaker can juggle. This is one of Kerouac’s most filmable novels. It doesn’t have the non linear plot of On the Road. Nor the fairy tale nature of Doctor Sax. It’s point A to point B. But getting from one to the other is about the words as much as what happens. It’s Kerouac stripped bare. Laid naked and exposed to a public that wanted him, just as I did, captured in a particular moment of his life.
This film tackles that obstacle by being more narration than film. Moments without voice over are scarce, opening with Kerouac’s words overlaid on top of images of him solitary in Ferlinghetti’s cabin. It’s only once he leaves that he interacts with those famous faces, portrayed by Josh Lucas as Neal Cassady and Anthony Edwards as Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Jean-Marc Barr portrays Kerouac, and all of the actors are adequate enough, but the film continues throughout to undercut any attempts to embody the roles with Kerouac’s words. The people playing the parts are only a backdrop all the way through the hour and a half of running time.
The movie seems to want to be a strange kind of biography of the book. Reenactments only peek through the surface as the words constantly overlap the images, just like the waves at Big Sur might wash up to shore and only allow a moment’s sand to peek through. It’s almost as if the movie is trying to be an abridged visual-audio book, wearing the cheap costume of a movie.
The emotional crux of the film, and the book, rests on selling Kerouac’s state of mind as he experiences his “break.” In the novel, he builds to it, frames it, after having such peace at the Big Sur cabin in the beginning and seeing all the old faces for good times after, only to have everything turn, feel, and (literally) taste sour with the vibrations of death and evil. But this film version doesn’t do that very well at all. The actors aren’t allowed to lay the groundwork. And the images don’t lead us into Kerouac’s mental state at the climax. Everything just feels flat.
I suggest fans leave the book as a book. Let this Kerouac novel remain on the page. The film isn’t terrible as an appendix, but it certainly doesn’t do justice to the words, even though it reads much of the novel to you.