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"On the Road" screened at Cannes Film Festival

Kirsten Dunst,Sam Riley,Kristen Stewart, director Walter Salles and Garrett Hedlund pose during the photocall of "On the Road" presented in competition at the 65th Cannes film festival on May 23, 2012, in Cannes.
VALERY HACHE/AFP/GettyImages
From left, Kirsten Dunst, Sam Riley, Kristen Stewart, director Walter Salles and Garrett Hedlund pose during the photo call for "On the Road" presented in competition at the 65th Cannes film festival on May 23, 2012, in Cannes.
VALERY HACHE/AFP/GettyImages

(CBS/AP) Jack Kerouac's "On the Road" finally hits the big screen after decades of attempts to transform Kerouac's beat novel into a screenplay.

The film premiered Wednesday at the Cannes Film Festival, far away from the American roads crisscrossed by Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty, the characters modeled on Kerouac and Neal Cassady, respectively.

Pictures: Cannes Film Festival 2012
Pictures: Fashion at Cannes

"Unless you revive it by rereading it, re-imagining it, performing it, it's a dead thing," said Viggo Mortensen, who plays the William S. Burroughs character in the film. "You have to reread it to make it live again."

Francis Ford Coppola purchased the novel's rights in 1979, and he, too, failed to grasp an interpretation. It's his son, the director Roman Coppola, who's producing "On the Road."

Brazilian director Walter Salles became involved with "On the Road" after making another road movie: 2004's "The Motorcycle Diaries," which chronicled a South American trip by a young Che Guevara. The "On the Road" screenplay is also by the writer of "The Motorcycle Diaries," Jose Rivera.

Both films, Salles said in a press conference for the film Wednesday, are about "a social and political awakening."

Much of the problem in adapting "On the Road" is its meandering narrative in which Paradise (played by Sam Riley) and Moriarty make a series of cross-country road trips in post-World War II America, where their intellectual, passionate, bohemian ways sometimes clash with a more conservative society. There are many girls along the way, who are played by Kristen Stewart, Kirsten Dunst, Elisabeth Moss and Alice Braga.

Whether "On the Road," the film, will seem as relevant to audiences now remains to be seen. Mortensen suggested the story bears particular contemporary resonance in a time of youthful protests over the economic collapse and events of  the Arab Spring.

Said Mortensen: "I think it was worth the wait."