Kill Your Darlings (d. John Krokidas) is the latest of three or four movies to gather most of my heroes together and tell a story about them. Like all of the preceding efforts—except Todd Haynes’ Bob Dylan pic I’m Not There, which was fabulous—it’s a partial success if you choose to take the film one way, and a great success if you take it another way.
Jack Kerouac’s On The Road in particular cast much too long a shadow over contemporary culture for any attempt at filming it to be universally applauded. As Allen Ginsberg said, through the influence of himself and more significantly Dylan, Kerouac’s seminal work probably changed Western history. Predictably, when the movie version was finally made, almost everybody familiar with the book was half-pleased (because it was there) and half disappointed.
The mistake that director Walter Salles made, probably, was trying to film the novel. That decision only encouraged comparisons that were always going to be unfavourable—especially since he left significant moments of the book out. I’m aware that I say this as a book lover first and a film buff second, but the novel is always going to be better than the movie. It has advantages of length and narrative that films can only approximate with intrusive devices and annoying trickery. Salles, in filming On The Road, should have found another angle; I don’t know what, but a straight (if selective) transfer from page to screen was doomed from the start.
Howl’s angle was good. Dramatising court transcripts and contemporaneous interviews with Ginsberg and then intercutting them with animated readings of the poem worked wonderfully. What let the film down for me, and probably for most viewers with a knowledge of literary history and the Beat Generation, was that everything was structured to reach a climax—Ferlinghetti’s acquittal—which I knew was coming. I was also bothered by the casting of James Franco as Ginsberg. Franco is a brilliant actor, but would some of Ginsberg’s early emotional traumas, his search for love and a sense of identity, have been more believable in someone a little less handsome? Perhaps.
Both films, though, are more successful if you try to forget what you know, if you resist the temptation to compare them with original texts or biographical factors (like Franco’s face versus Allen’s) and roll with the movie as a separate work of art, something that exists by itself with no referents. Which is probably true of every movie made from a book.
The need to cast other details from your mind is even more significant in Kill Your Darlings because Harry Potter (Daniel Radcliffe) is playing Allen Ginsberg. He looks nothing like him, and Jack Huston looks nothing like Jack Kerouac, although he sounds like him, and at first sight Ben Foster looks alarmingly like Griff Rhys Jones, not William Burroughs—although when you consult pictures of Burroughs as a younger man you see very little of the spectral menace of the later man, so familiar from television documentaries and his guest appearance in Drugstore Cowboy.
That, of course, is the thing to remember anyway. None of the characters in Kill Your Darlings is the great iconic writer he would become. The movie is, in fact, the story of how Ginsberg did become the world-renowned poet and activist we think of today; and accordingly—and logically—Radcliffe makes no apparent effort to represent him at all. His Ginsberg is just an intelligent, adventurous, rebellious young Jewish teenager with a shock of curly black hair and an understated American East Coast accent which (my partner said) slipped into Harry Potter from time to time.
The tabula rasa that this young Ginsberg is gets written on by the handsome, charismatic and clearly rather deranged Lucien Carr (Dane Dehaan), who acts as Allen’s Mephistophelean guide into the creative underground of 1940s New York. There Ginsberg finds prolific drug abuse and sexual freedom—it takes him a while, and a tortured infatuation with Carr, to get to the latter. There he also makes his first venture in the literary avant-garde, joining Carr in the proposal of a movement called A New Vision, so named after the text by Yeats. The purpose or guiding principles of this movement are a little unclear; a manifesto is written before any art is created. But these are kids. Precociously clever kids. When I was 18 I wrote a poem that began with the words “I am the next in a noble line” and ended with the words “Are you ready for me?” The editor of the magazine I sent it to returned it with the words “Not quite” written at the bottom.. We’ve all thought we could bite the head of the world off when we were teenagers.
Some reviews have mentioned the youth of the characters in Kill Your Darlings. The drift of at least one review I read was a slightly sniffy suggestion that the Beats were being rebranded and diluted; their literary significance diminished by the effort the movie seems to make to present them as handsome, larking young kids. Well, I don’t think the movie does do that, but even if it does, the popular image of the Beats has never had very much to do with the truth. Everybody loved On The Road in the 80s too, when I was in my twenties, but very few of those admirers knew Kerouac was a mother-tied alcoholic, a Republican who denounced all his old friends and died long before he should have. It doesn’t matter if there’s a media perception running alongside the actual truth because anyone who’s interested will be able to jump across the track and find out what really happened just by going to a bookshop, or—(uh)—buying a kindle.
I first read about Lucien Carr’s murder of Dave Kammerer many years ago. It’s a big part of Kerouac’s late novel Vanity of Duluoz. I’d always had the impression that Kammerer almost brought the killing on himself by pushing Carr beyond the limits of his endurance. Whether that’s the case or not, Kill Your Darlings suggests it’s much more complicated, with Carr using Kammerer and exploiting him but simultaneously loathing him for his weakness (and, also, as the embodiment of Carr’s own repressed homosexuality and mental vulnerability);. Ginsberg takes Kammerer’s place as Carr’s victim ultimately, but exacts an inadvertently fatal revenge by sending Kammerer to his death.
It occurs to me that the movie is an odd mirror to Stephen Frears’ Prick Up Your Ears, which is about the life and violent death of British playwright Joe Orton. Joe, as many of you will know, had his brains beaten out by his jealous failure of a lover, Kenneth Halliwell, at a time when homosexuality was illegal in the UK. Carr only served eighteen months for the murder of Kammerer because he presented himself to the court as a straight man who’d been the victim of a homosexual assault. Halliwell died the night he killed Orton; in a weird way there was almost no malice in him—he was just too disturbed to be in the world, and he knew, so he left it. But I wonder how different the conditions for Ginsberg, Carr and Kammerer—for Orton and Halliwell—would have been if the countries in which they lived hadn’t enforced insanely prejudicial laws against their kind? Homosexuality is no more of a choice than heterosexuality, or preferring Stella Artois to Carlsberg for that matter. The sooner everybody gets that through their thick heads the better.