For all of the great themes in the literatures of North America, the open road and new territories might be the most quintessential. If Mark Twain’s Huckelberry Finn is the most elemental novel of the Northern part of the continent, then this book could be arguably the very root of the road novel, and subsequently the road film. But there seems to be a paucity of literature about the automobile, whereas it is often a central component in the cinema.
While there are plenty of stories about the road that transfer well to books, most notably in Kerouac, books about cars are much more difficult to find than movies with cars in the center. Perhaps that’s because of the cinematic quality of the automobile. The windshield can serve as the perfect double for the film screen, and the driver and passenger are the viewers who are looking out on the film that plays before their eyes.
Nabokov is one of the exceptions that prove the rule. On the same route, Hunter S. Thompson wrote most eloquently about the Great Shark, the auto that somehow reminds readers of that great big car their best friend in high school drove. Stephen King also wrote about a car, one that became an entirely central character, in his novel Christine. In both of these cases, the representation of the cars when they transfer to the screen seem to lose something essential. The ironic or sinister quality of the vehicles are present, but they lose their raw power that their written versions are capable of evoking.
The cars are pretty close to the author’s descriptions, from the shape and the paint down to the general tires and subtle details about the dashboard. But the heart of their peculiar qualities, ones that make them exceptional characters on the page, don’t seem to transfer to film. The films that have cars in the center seem to be ones who are either original creations, or taken very tangentially from the novels. In film, the language is still one where the audience is looking at a vehicle as an object of value, rather than a character that can transform the story on its own accord. It could be a lack of descriptive qualities that separates the way they play out on the page versus how they read on the screen, or it could be something related to an inner landscape that only a book can afford to open.