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.
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.

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

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