Many consider Jack Kerouac’s “On the Road” sacred text. The novel was, after all, originally typed on a scroll.
Translated into 40 languages, millions of copies of the Beat generation classic have sold worldwide since the novel was published in 1957, placing it among the 20th century’s most influential books.
When it comes to the big screen, however, “On the Road” has faced a Kerouac curse. Past efforts by Hollywood to adapt the author’s work have been failures.
Now, somewhat quietly, “On the Road” has finally been made into a movie. The $25 million production, shot in San Francisco, Montreal and other locales, is scheduled for release this fall.
The movie is expected to be of keen interest in San Francisco where the Beats and their old hangouts are a cottage industry. Each year, thousands of people flock to North Beach to visit the City Lights bookstore and the bar Vesuvio or to gawk at Kerouac artifacts in The Beat Museum.
But with so much interest comes anxiety.
Adapting any beloved book for film is perilous and apt to irk fans, especially when it’s a literary classic where the language itself played a starring role — something not easily translated onto the screen. “On the Road” is particularly daunting since the provocative ideas that defined the novel — casual sex and drug use and a rejection of materialism — are unlikely to raise eyebrows with today’s multiplex audience.
The creative team from another counterculture road movie is leading the project: the director Walter Salles and the screenwriter Jose Rivera from the award-winning Che Guevara biopic “The Motorcycle Diaries.”
The cast is peppered with actors with box-office appeal, including Kristen Stewart of “Twilight” fame, Kirsten Dunst, Amy Adams and Viggo Mortensen. The two male leads, characters based on Kerouac and his fellow flâneur Neal Cassady, are played by lesser-known actors, Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund.
In July, before filming began near the primary sets in Montreal, the cast and crew went through Beat boot camp — three weeks of immersion with Kerouac experts.
One “drill instructor” was Gerald Nicosia, author of “Memory Babe: A Critical Biography of Jack Kerouac,” considered by many (including William S. Burroughs) to be the definitive Kerouac account.
None of the cast and crew were old enough to remember the Beat era, so Nicosia, of Corte Madera, approached the sessions as if he were teaching ancient history, “like I was bringing them the Holy Grail.”
He said the actors were especially intense, knowing they would upset a lot of people if they didn’t portray the characters accurately.
At the camp, Nicosia played an audio interview that he recorded in 1978 with Lu Anne Henderson, Neal Cassady’s young wife, on whom the book’s character Marylou is based. That conversation is also the basis of “One and Only: The Untold Story of ‘On The Road,’” a new book by Nicosia out this fall.
Could the cast and crew dig, er, relate?
“They’re all very unconventional in their own lives,” Nicosia said of the actors. “If you’re an outsider, you understand what counterculture is about.”
This striving for authenticity is a stark contrast to many past efforts to film Kerouac’s work.
His novel “The Subterraneans” about an interracial love affair was turned into a 1960 movie starring George Peppard and Leslie Caron (note: they’re both white). And in 1980 “Heart Beat,” about Kerouac’s life, was derided by critics as having about as much literary substance as a Tic Tac.
Nicosia said concerns that “On the Road” would be similarly botched have thwarted past attempts to make such a movie. (The film’s producers did not respond to requests for comments.)
Concerns remain. Joanna McClure, a Beat poet who was immortalized as a character in Kerouac’s novel “Big Sur,” is curious about the new film, but said: “It was the writing that was so exciting. How do you make that into a movie?”
McClure also wondered whether today’s young movie audience, which she described as obsessed with “trying to get into corporations,” could grasp a story about shunning worldly possessions.
“It must make a nice fairy tale for them to think about,” she said. “People wished they lived in a world where that could happen.”
Yet in San Francisco such wishes still resonate.
Gravity Goldberg, editor of the local literary journal Instant City, said many of the submissions she receives today are inspired by Kerouac.
“I think his influence, consciously or not, slips into the work of all these semi-autobiographical bar-hopping, nirvana-through-a-bottle-of-J.D.-seeking writers,” Goldberg said.
Whether Hollywood success finally comes, or not, the beat goes on.
This article also appears in the Bay Area edition of The New York Times.