by T.J. Tranchell
Beat poetry might not be your thing, and that’s fine. I can dig it, daddie-o. In the last few years, however, the Beat Generation has been a choice flavor for independent filmmakers.
This decade has seen a number of Beat movies. Five films of varying quality made it to the theater or at least to home video and streaming services between 2010 and ’13. Some even starred famous people.
The best of the lot is “Howl” from 2010. Starring indy darling James Franco as Allen Ginsberg, the movie chronicles the obscenity case against Ginsberg’s poem “Howl.” As Ginsberg, Franco appears in scenes reading the poem and discussing the trial. He never appears in the trial scenes because he wasn’t the one being charged with obscenity. Rather, publisher Lawrence Ferlinghetti (one of the last of beats still alive) was on trial.
The reading scenes are the best as Franco embodies the clean-shaven awkwardness of Ginsberg instead of the later bushy-bearded bard of the hippies most people remember him as.
Franco’s performance of Ginsberg catches him at a later point in his life than does the 2013 film “Kill Your Darlings.” Stepping into the Ginsberg role this time is the boy wizard himself Daniel Radcliffe. Radcliffe has made some interesting choices since the end of the “Harry Potter” franchise, and this is one of his best performances in a movie no one saw.
“Kill Your Darlings” is not as much about the central beat figures (Ginsberg, Kerouac and William S. Burroughs) as it is about a story from their early days at Columbia University. An ancillary member of the group, Lucien Carr, was having an affair with a professor, David Kammerer. Things didn’t go well, and Carr killed the older man. Ginsberg and Kerouac were implicated in a cover-up. Ginsberg wrote a deposition for Carr which Carr rejected. Ginsberg used the document as a term paper which later results in his expulsion from the university.
Radcliffe’s Ginsberg is even more reserved than Franco’s. Here, Radcliffe is more able to explore Ginsberg’s growing acceptance of his own homosexuality and that of others around him.
Those themes became much more central to the 2012 film “On the Road.” While Kerouac does deal with a variety of sexual proclivities in his 1957 book, the movie takes more license with those moments. What is then lost is the wandering nature of the Sal Paradise character (here played by Sam Riley) and more focus on Dean Moriarty (Garret Hedlund). While I like much of the film — the cinematography is particularly noteworthy — it just doesn’t hold up. Paradise as a Kerouac stand-in doesn’t work as well as maybe telling a story about Kerouac himself would.
Overall, I’d say filmmakers are better off making movies about the stories of the Beat Generation rather than trying to adapt the material they wrote.
The Beat will go on, and the Beat Generation will continue to attract new readers and be ripe for independent films. Someday, maybe the movies about them will actually be seen worldwide.
Tranchell is a journalism adviser at the University of Idaho. The second largest section of books on his shelf are Beat Generation books. Love it or hate it? Let’s talk: firstname.lastname@example.org