THE BRITISH LIBRARY

American Collections blog

12 October 2012

Film and On the Road

Truman Capote famously dismissed Jack Kerouac's On the Road in two pithy – and rather tart – lines, 'That's not writing.  That's typewriting'.  (The quotation was later often boiled down to 'that's not writing, that's typing'; a subtly different set of words.  Neither epigram would look good as a blurb.)

Capote, of course, had the honour of having several of his books and stories turned into films and TV shows (indeed, two films inspired by the writing of In Cold Blood were released in the same twelve months).  And, as George Costanza could tell you, a book can be much more easily digested in video form, particularly if you join a bookclub to impress your girlfriend ('If it's not about sports, I find it very hard to concentrate!').  The novella that George was trying to get through – and even fails to watch to the end because he spills grapejuice over the couch and has to flee the appartment – was, of course, Capote's Breakfast at Tiffany's.

The film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, as George failed to notice, takes certain liberties with Capote's typed text.  As Time magazine noted, 'for the first half hour or so, Hollywood's Holly (Audrey Hepburn) is not much different from Capote's. She has kicked the weed and lost the illegitimate child she was having, but she is still jolly Holly, the child bride from Tulip, Texas, who at 15 runs away to Hollywood to find some of the finer things of life—like shoes... after that out-of-Capote beginning, Director Blake Edwards goes on to an out-of-character end'.  The film is also set in the 1960s, rather than the more austere 1940s. 

In contrast, Walter Salles' adaptation of On the Road is pretty authentic, cutting things out of necessity here and there; combining bits of the published novel with the unpublished scroll (such as the reinsertion of the death of Jack/Sal's father at the start of the film, replacing the split with his wife that opens the novel, and by so-doing, emphasising the sense of loss and spiritual search of the novel), and bringing in other bits and pieces (such as Joan Vollmer's marital advice, which is discussed in Ted Morgan's biography of William Burroughs); the scroll itself (which, need I remind you, is on display in the British Library at St Pancras, London until 27 December), makes a brilliant appearance towards the end of the movie.  Indeed, at the previewing screening at the Library this week, members of the audience let out a yelp of delight at this point.  (And, unlike Carole and I, you probably won't be jarred by the Sal/Jacks' correct typing of 'I first met Neal' rather than 'I first met met Neal' or the crisp whiteness of the paper.)  Like the reception of Breakfast at Tiffany's, a lot of critics and viewers have commented on the casting (The New York Times found Hepburn as 'implausible as ever', Capote thought the studio had double-crossed him, and wanted Marilyn Monroe all along), particularly Garrett Hedlund as Dean and Kristen Stewart as MaryLou.  For me, both were more than fine, but Tom Sturridge almost stole it as Carlo Marx/Allen Ginsberg, and has the best 'beat' moments.  Salles also does a good job at drawing out the female characters' roles, something that readers of the book often find troubling, and also in following the structure of the book, which places Denver as the heart of the narrative structure.

I'm not sure what George would make of it; he may find two hours a little long, given his need to visit the bathroom.  And, taking into account his unease with bookclubs, he might resort to a line suggested by a friend of mine, 'that's not filming, that's CCTV', but, that would be wrong of him.  It's a very artful film (with I expect a future nomination for the cinematography by Éric Gautier).  If anything, it's overly true to the book, which does not really make for comfortable viewing or reading; a view nicely summed up in this review by The Scotsman.

[M.S.]

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