What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Jack Kerouac and the Beat Generation

A new crop of films portrays their lifestyle as rebellious, adolescent fun. But what made the Beats so influential in the first place was that they were radical, free-thinking adults.
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Sony Pictures

John Clellon Holmes, author of the seminal Beat Generation novel Go, wrote in 1952 that for the free-spirited rising stars of American literature known as the Beats, “how to live seems to them much more crucial than why.” In those years, young people in the U.S. were in the process of inheriting both economic prosperity and stifling societal mores from their parents. So for many, the Beat Generation of writers—with their stupendous refusal of social and cultural norms and their way of life governed by the pursuit of pleasure, belief, and truth—was a godsend.

Today’s young people experience problems of a bit of a different ilk. Feeling free and adventurous won’t avail you of your student loan debt, poems penned in the days between drug-fueled nights probably won’t make it into your favorite lit mag—and, if they did, you’d probably be asked to write for free anyway, you know, “for the exposure.” But this hasn’t stopped a veritable resurgence over the last few years of Beat obsession, beginning with the film Howl (2010), and continuing with On the Road (2012) and two new films, Kill Your Darlings, in theaters today, and Big Sur, opening November 1. Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg—the authors of On the Road and Howl, respectively—have been the focus of two films each.

Given what the Beats meant to young people of the 1950s, perhaps it isn’t so surprising that their culture has been revived for millennial consumption. What teenager or 20-something doesn’t long to drop everything and take a road trip to wherever, with friends and booze and drugs and sex? And in an age when many young people are discovering that young adulthood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, we could use some fun, right? But the current Beat revival arguably goes too far with its re-imagination of the Beat writers’ livelihoods as simple adolescent goofing around—its most prominent writers were, after all, well into their grown-up years when they wrote many of their most notable writings. This crop of films diminishes what was so radical about the Beat Generation in the first place: their iconoclastic approach to life, which extended far beyond their 20s and into adulthood proper. 

Conspicuously absent from the latest revival is the third heavyweight of the movement, William S. Burroughs, whose Naked Lunch was adapted into a disturbing and gritty film by David Cronenberg in 1991. The omission perhaps isn’t so surprising: Burroughs credited his awakening as a writer to a 1951 incident in Mexico when he accidentally killed his wife while playing “William Tell,” a bar trick Burroughs invented that involves shooting a glass off someone’s head, so his legacy would likely be a bit harder to spin as one of harmless and youthful adventure.

The exclusion of Burroughs from the Beat revival isn’t the only way the movement has been crafted for optimal consumption, though: Howl and Kill Your Darlings focus on Allen Ginsberg at his most youthful and promising. Kill Your Darlings, in which a baby-faced Daniel Radcliffe plays Ginsberg, tells a little-known tale of murder in the Beats’ group of friends at Columbia University, which ends up bringing the group together. The appeal of the story seems to be that it’s about a set of famous people who may have been involved in a possible murder during their youths, the occurrence of which may or may not explain their genius, or art, or something. In Howl, however, Ginsberg’s collection of poems are the subject of an obscenity trial, and though you’d never guess from James Franco’s youthful appearance as Ginsberg in the film, the author was actually 30 years old when Howl was published.

On the Road, published when Kerouac was 35, seems most susceptible to being reimagined as a series of youthful whims. A recollection of Kerouac’s mid-20s, which he spent traveling with Neal Cassady (known as Dean Moriarty in the book); Neal’s wife, Luanne Henderson; and other Beat figures, On the Road is a paean to recklessness and discovery. Significantly, the film replaces the famous opening line of the book, “I first met Dean not long after my wife and I split up,” with “I first met Dean not long after my father died,” likely because it interferes with the viewer’s image of carefree and unbridled youth. Scrubbed from the film is any mention of Sal’s age at the time (25) or his stint in the military before attending Columbia. However, the film doesn’t balk at Luanne’s age: characters make numerous references to “Dean’s 16-year-old bride,” known in the book as Marylou.

Sal Paradise, Kerouac’s character in the book, describes Marylou as being “awfully dumb and capable of doing horrible things.” In the morning after Sal’s first all-night meeting with the couple, Dean “decided the thing to do was to have Marylou make breakfast and sweep the floor.” Shortly after, Dean and Marylou have a fight, and Marylou kicks Dean out of their shared apartment. According to Sal, “Dean said she’d apparently whored a few dollars together and gone back to Denver—‘the whore!’” This is all within the first three pages. While Marylou’s character in last year’s film adaptation of On the Road, played by Kristen Stewart, is spared some of the nastier epithets, the story’s misogyny largely lives on unchallenged and uncut. Marylou plays a tiny role in the story, mostly as a “dumb little box” whom Dean and Sal trade around until she gets pregnant and they tire of her.

In casting the authors as eternally and fundamentally adolescent, the recent revival tones down their behavior—both revolutionary and repulsive—as a sort of passing teenage phase, something that young people just sort of do. And in that way, the latest cultural reincarnation both nullifies and excuses the behavior of its leaders. In the end, I’m not sure what’s more offensive—the film’s rampant and unapologetic misogyny or Stewart’s interview with the Chicago Sun-Times, in which she claimed that On the Road told her “that you have to use every second in life. You can’t get complacent and let life pass you by,” as if fathering children and abandoning them is just an essential part of what it means to be free, man.

Big Sur, it’s worth noting, is remarkably different from the other films. The film, to its great credit, largely avoids the pitfalls of the others by tackling subject matter that’s less inherently glamorous. An adaptation of Kerouac’s 1962 novel, his first after the publication of On the Road, Big Sur shows Kerouac suffering from the burden of fame and lamenting the fact that he’s no longer young. The film opens with a lightly adapted quote from the novel: “All over America high school and college kids thinking ‘Jack Kerouac is 26 years old and on the road all the time hitchhiking’ while there I am almost 40 years old, bored and jaded.” (Jack Kerouac is known as Jack Duluoz in the book.) The film follows Kerouac as he wanders from Lawrence Ferlinghetti’s cabin in Big Sur to San Francisco and back again, usually in the company of several Beats and lady friends. The film crescendos with Kerouac’s alcohol-induced nervous breakdown, accompanied by a sudden epiphany and strangely chipper ending. Though Kerouac behaves much the same way as he did in On the Road, he doesn’t feel the same way: He becomes obsessed with death and drinking, and the narrative seems to comment on the binary of blessed youth and damned old age.

The misogyny of On the Road also figures into Big Sur, and it gets a little harder to stomach as it becomes clear that it’s not just a phase of adolescence, but rather, it’s seemingly central to the life of a Beat writer. A significant portion of the plot revolves around Neal Cassady’s mistress, whom he introduces to Kerouac. Kerouac, in turn, becomes her lover, promises to marry her, and introduces her to Cassady’s wife. He later calls off the marriage, or any form of commitment, leaving his lover to wonder how she’ll take care of herself and her four-year-old son. Unlike in On the Road, these actions finally begin to reflect upon Cassady and Kerouac in negative ways. Their casual womanizing no longer seems like something fun and rebellious to partake in, but like a deep-seated and decidedly unfortunate character flaw.

Overall, while these films are supposed to offer some vintage escapism, their takes ring hollow. Kerouac may have been a tremendous writer, but the enormity of his art is largely left out of the film adaptations. Even for all the dramatic voiceovers of Kerouac’s prose, On the Road and Big Sur are mostly left to work with muddled and problematic plot points. Still, what’s most problematic about these films isn’t their artistry but their authenticity.

Yes, to some extent, the real Kerouac and Cassady will always be remembered as somewhat youthful. Seven years after the publication of Big Sur, Kerouac died of cirrhosis of the liver, nearly 30 years before both Burroughs and Ginsberg died; Cassady died the previous year at the age of 41. But despite the fact that they “died young,” both of them were said to look far older than their years. One could argue that these films are only trying to honor the spirit of the Beat Generation, but can you separate the “essence” of a story or a movement from what its progenitors really said and did, and at what point in their lives? Neal Cassady and Jack Kerouac were grown men who were also alcoholics, misogynists, and womanizers who killed themselves with substance abuse. Pretending Kerouac’s life was some sort of consequence-free dream not only does a disservice to viewers, but to the Beats, as well. 

Even at its best, the idea of a revelatory and sensual Beat adventure is rather clichéd, but especially so when divorced from the movement’s great and lasting achievements: Their rebelliousness paved the way for the counterculture of the sixties, and artists from Patti Smith to Thomas Pynchon have hailed the Beats’ style of jazz-like improvisation as an influence. The Beats deserve to be celebrated for the way they lived and what they created, not just for how fun and sexy their escapades may have looked.

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Jordan Larson is a writer based in Washington, D.C.

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