Moving with the Beats: Words on the big screen

Naked Lunch - Beats beat generationHow do you portray on film a movement as influential, radical and ground breaking as that of the Beat Generation? It seems hard to fathom now, but what the Beats did for the literary world was akin to what the Beatles did for music. The Beats were a crazed frenzy of creativity that came kicking and screaming out of the stifling post-war American landscape. Inspired by nature, the road and free-form jazz, they invented a whole new genre of writing.

Hollywood has tried for years to film the Beats work and show them as individuals but they never seem to quite pull it off. Perhaps part of the struggle is that as a group and as individuals the Beats were complex, challenging and sometimes hostile. Their work is often described as “un-filmable” because it rarely follows a straight forward linear narrative. The Beats truly were rebels without a cause, anti-authoritarian figures on the run, often in a very real sense, from the law.

To highlight the chaotic world of the Beats you only need to look at William S. Burroughs, author of Naked Lunch, and Jack Kerouac. Burroughs was convicted of manslaughter after shooting and killing his wife, Joan Vollmer, in a drunken game of “William Tell”, and Kerouac was widely thought to be a bi-sexual, anti-Semitic alcoholic. That is not to say that their work wasn’t brilliant, but the film industry often comes up short when portraying this side of the Beats in a cinematic universe.

It is important to be able to separate an author’s views and personal lives from their work, they are not always linked. Maybe the big confusion for filmmakers is that so much of the Beats’ canon did reflect versions of their real life, so they are unsure of where the line between character and person lies. The recent furore around Ender’s Game (2013) has shown us that sometimes our favourite authors have unsavoury opinions, but that shouldn’t always prevent us enjoying their work. An author may develop difficult to accept views later in their careers and these views do not necessarily inform their work. That said, it is sometimes hard to make these distinctions, and the popular myth of Kerouac as the godfather of the Beats is easier to characterise on film than his sometimes sad and angry real life, and separating the fact from the fiction is a problem that continues to face filmmakers when they come to bring the Beat Movement to life on the screen.

There has been a recent renaissance in filmed biopics and adaptations of the Beats work, so I decided to take a look at five Beat adaptations or biographical accounts and see how successful they have been at capturing the Beats and their works, warts and all.


Naked Lunch (1991)

William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch was adapted by the visionary director, David Cronenberg, and is by far the best adaptation of the Beats’ canon. It is surreal, visceral and captures the essence of Burroughs’ books, but is not for the faint hearted or those who do not like their stomachs turned. Cronenberg’s film takes many liberties, which is not surprising given that the book itself is a non-linear collection of loosely themed essays on Burroughs’ various drug addictions. The film takes a similar tact, loosely interweaving Naked Lunch, many of the author’s other works, and a reflection on Burroughs as a writer with the usual mix of Cronenbergian obsessions. It deals frankly with the author’s sexuality and drug addiction and remains the bravest and most truthful attempt at dealing with the Beats. Burroughs, known for his cut-up technique, was said to have been happy with the finished film, an experimental piece close to his own tastes.


Howl (2010)

Howl, a quietly clever biopic starring the talented and enigmatic James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, is an attempt to tackle the personalities behind, and historical context to, Ginsberg’s seminal work, Howl. The film delves into Ginsberg’s past, citing the sectioning of his mother and his unrequited love for Neal Cassady as significant creative foils.

Franco gives a decent performance, imitating Ginsberg’s voice perfectly, but in his mannerisms is probably a little too sure of himself. The film is at its strongest when excerpts of Howl are recited alongside music and visually arresting animated sequences. These animations prove an effective way of bringing the rhythms of Howl to life, reminding us what a powerful and landmark piece of literature it is.

The movie does pull punches when it comes to Ginsberg’s sexuality and drug addictions, but is successful in celebrating the brilliance of Ginsberg’s words, throwing a light on a significant moment in literary history. It also tells us a cautionary tale of freedom of speech, showing that we have come a long way in terms of equality and sexual liberation but that there is still a long way to go. What stops this very good film being an excellent one, is that it doesn’t know what it wants to be. It isn’t quite a courtroom drama, a straight up biopic or an art house film, although it has elements of all three.

Howl is a solid attempt at dealing with the myth of the Beat movement and the legend of one of its primary characters, even if it does occasionally shy away from some of the more uncomfortable truths of Ginsberg’s life.


Kill Your Darlings (2013)

Another biopic, of sorts, sees Daniel Radcliffe trade wizardry for poetry and star as another Allen Ginsberg. This film makes a passing attempt at dealing with the true personalities of the Beat movement as Radcliffe skilfully portrays Ginsberg in conflict with his Jewish upbringing, his parents and his sexuality. Charting his relationship with fellow Beat, Lucien Carr, this is an interesting period piece with superb acting. However it often glosses over the gritty aspects of the Beats’ lives in favour of a rose-tinted sheen. The drugs, the typewriters, and the deaths are dealt with all too cleanly and lacking any realism. In fact Kill Your Darlings falls into the trap of over romanticising the whole “scene”. It does try to ask questions about how relevant the Beat movement actually was, but the movie, despite some decent performances, lacks any substance and certainly lacks the sparkle of the era it seeks to portray.


On the Road (2012)

The long awaited adaptation of Kerouac’s finest work is a disappointing romantic drama. It doesn’t anywhere near capture the exuberance and wild abandon of the book and all the actors look too clean-cut. I had high hopes when I found out that Walter Salles would be directing (his Motorcycle Diaries was a superb film), but became immediately concerned when I read about some of the casting. This felt like a compromise, and altogether decent and inoffensive, like the film.

There are no cracks or creases here, no sense of a real life. There is a melancholy undertow of life unfulfilled in the text that just isn’t present in the film. The film also lacks any of the free-form, beat filled rhythms of the text. So whilst the cinematography is beautiful, the story isn’t captured. The novel itself was a romanticised version of Kerouac’s relationship with Cassady and the other Beats and the film increases the romantic visions of the book, choosing not to shed any light on Kerouac’s motivations as an author or the way he treated people. The film doesn’t take the same artistic chances as Howl and is fairly conventional as a result.

On The Road is a solid if unspectacular road movie that unfortunately does very little to capture the spirit of Kerouac’s most famous novel.


Quantum Leap (Episode: Rebel without a Clue, 1990)

That’s right, Jack Kerouac turned up in an episode of Quantum Leap and again, sorry Sam, he was a disappointment. Dr. Sam Beckett goes to Kerouac in the hopes that he will assist in persuading a rebellious biker of the error of his ways. The episode, Rebel Without a Clue, is cute but fairly formulaic and Michael Bryan French’s portrayal of Kerouac quickly descends into parody. The episode is worth watching for its novelty, but will provide no deep insight into the life and works of Jack Kerouac.


About the Author

I am a Freelance Writer currently working on my first novel, an illustrated story and an e-book of poetry. I have written for various publications including Star Trek Magazine, SFX and The Vegetarian Society.

9 thoughts on “Moving with the Beats: Words on the big screen

  1. I came to say thank you for reading my work. I read many of your comments on various movies with great interest. They’re very articulate and insightful.
    I noted a comment that you write for the Huff post. Are you reviewing current movies?
    As I’m sure you can understand I get so much email to reply to I rarely take excursions until I catch up, which is never. If you are doing reviews of current movies please let me know as I will definitely take the time to read them.
    Thank you again for your time and attention,

  2. Pingback: Moving with the Beats: Words on the big screen | theworldoutsidethewindow

  3. Great! You certainly did a good article that makes me want to read their books. I didn’t catch any of these movies which tried to tackle the Beatnicks literature. I remember meeting Allen Ginsberg on the street in Greenwich Village in the 60s while I was still at NYU.But never read Howl or could never relate to On The Road, when I was 19, but now I can. I guess the movie Tropic Of Cancer 1971 with Rip Torn playing Henry Miller would fall into the Beat movie category and another I saw, Two Lane Blacktop 1971 with James Taylor and the late Dennis Wilson.

  4. Great post, John! Glad to have you on the CURNBLOG team.

    For my part, I’ve never felt quite as connected to a novel as I felt when reading ‘On the Road’ while travelling through Europe after finishing school. I’m hesitant to revisit the book or watch the film – I’m worried I won’t find the same experience.

    • Thanks James, glad to be on the team 🙂
      I think it is a great book but I know what you mean about revisiting texts read years ago, they sometimes have a lot to live up to. My personal favourite of Kerouac’s is actually Big Sur, I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it before..

  5. Hi John, thanks for a very interesting, and unusual theme. I agree that it is well-nigh impossible to film the ‘work’ of the Beat poets and writers, and portraying them in biopics has never really felt satisfying. I am reminded of the old fable, of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. These writers and ‘rebels’ are just accepted as quirky geniuses, and the definitive voice of early 1960’s radicalism. As someone who was just growing up at the time, I had an opposite view, that they were often just plain annoying, and using their work to publicise, and to justify, their choice of alternative life styles. I never felt that any of them were as great as their reputations would have us believe.
    ‘Naked Lunch’ is undoubtedly the best adaptation of any work of that era, though I think that ‘Quantum Leap’ got closest to my inner feelings, with the title, ‘Rebel Without A Clue’.
    Great article, about an almost forgotten period.
    Regards from England, Pete.

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