I would argue that there’s an inherent challenge in adapting one of literary icon Jack Kerouac’s novels for film. While Kerouac’s signature stream-of-conscious writing style is one of the primary reasons he gained fame as the father of the Beat Generation, it stands in contrast to the conversational nature of most films. Additionally, his work doesn’t follow a typical story arc that you might find on the pages of a script. Regardless, Michael Polish’s Big Sur — based on the novel of the same name – is a film worth viewing for literary buffs.
Polish took a few artistic liberties, such as forgoing pseudonyms in favor of using the actual names of Kerouac and his companions, but stayed extremely true to Kerouac’s voice. In fact, according to Polish, all but twelve words in the film are taken directly from Kerouac’s novel. I found the voice-overs by Jean-Marc Barr, who played Kerouac, unobtrusive and felt they flowed nicely with the mood of the film. I think it actually would have been a shame to omit them, as so much of Kerouac’s work relies on language that takes place outside of dialogue. This holds particularly true at the end of the film, when Barr delivers his final lines. It was also refreshing to view a literary-based film that chose not to stray from the original artist’s work. There was no large departure from text or message, and no attempt to grab the audience’s attention with overtly modernized elements.
From a production standpoint, the film is stunning. Cinematographer M. David Mullen captures the overwhelming beauty of the Big Sur region in a way that can get you lost in the scenery. The soundtrack is also easily my favorite from the films I have viewed thus far. The music is lovely but also underscores the sense of contemplative desolation so present at this time in Kerouac’s life.
I would say the film ended without a strong feeling of resolve and the often aloof main characters can be hard to connect with, which may turn viewers away. However, readers of Kerouac may recognize these things as elements that are also present in his literary works. There was an unavoidable sense of loneliness about the film, just as in the novel and in so many of Kerouac’s writings.
While I’m quick to admit that film adaptations of novels can lead to some truly cringe-worthy outcomes, I feel Michael Polish’s Big Sur played homage to Jack Kerouac’s novel in the best way it could. By using Kerouac’s own text he takes an admirable course of allowing the author’s work stand up for itself, and aids it with a breathtaking backdrop of redwoods and sea unparalleled by most films I’ve seen.
If you enjoy Kerouac’s work, I recommend trying to catch the second screening of Big Sur at the Victoria Film Festival on February 17th. Lovers of landscape photography could also benefit from seeing it. If you’re not a Kerouac fan, however, it may be wise to instead save up your movie endurance for one of the other films being shown on Sunday.
– Linda Sjostrom