The progression of road trip films
By Alex Coburn, Ministry of Cool Editor
“Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” Ever since Jack Kerouac’s famous novel On The Road, American culture has become obsessed with the idea of the road story. Whether it’s a campy ’80s college road trip movie or an angsty Netflix original, stories of travelling and leaving one’s home permeate culture. Often these stories involve outsider protagonists who boldly “risk it all” and leave their old lives in order to find themselves. For a society with permanent wanderlust, the road movie has become a staple.
But why? According to a Mic article, “The wanderlust narratives tend to have a few things in common: disillusionment with the status quo, a huge career risk and a grand adventure following the big leap.” Road narratives serve as the last-ditch exit strategy for everyone disillusioned with their jobs, their partners, their hometowns; there’s always the big ‘maybe’ of running away from it all.
One of the most famous and influential road stories is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, Hunter S. Thompson’s autobiographical novel which was later adapted into a film by Terry Gilliam. Fear and Loathing, like On the Road before it, was raunchy and unpredictable, something strangely inspirational for middle-class Americans who just wanted out. The A.V. Club said of the film adaptation: “Here are two sets of Americans, each looking for artificially induced happiness in a world of glitter, with neither wanting to acknowledge the other.”
But according to The New York Times, the road movie originated far before Fear and Loathing or even On the Road; instead, it started in the early 20th century, at the very birth of film as technology, with documentaries by Robert Flaherty and Basil Wright. These “documentaries” were less actual documentations of reality than they were road movies. They’d fabricate narratives about places far from the Western hemisphere, like the tundra of the North Pole or the jungles of Sri Lanka with Nanook of the North (Flaherty, 1922) or Song of Ceylon (Wright, 1934). While they were marketed to the public as documentaries, they were far more like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas than today’s Planet Earth series.
Since then, we’ve been hooked on the idea of anywhere-but-here. In the ’60s Bonnie and Clyde became the road movie of the decade. Bonnie and Clyde (Penn, 1967), like Fear and Loathing (which would debut a few years later) followed the two infamous criminals as they went on a town-to-town crime spree. Even though it sounds much more far-fetched and fantastical than the average road movie, at its heart it’s about a girl who’s bored with her normal life and will do anything to go somewhere new. Isn’t that basically the definition of wanderlust?
But in the ’90s, road movies really hit their stride, and even iconic directors like David Lynch hopped on the bandwagon. Lynch’s 1990 film Wild at Heart stars pre-meme Nicolas Cage and Lynch muse Laura Dern as reunited ex-lovers on the run from a hitman hired to kill Cage. While on the road, the two live from motel to motel and discover their glorified new honeymoon stage may not be indicative of the future of their relationship.
Even the independent film industry got in on the trend. Famous indie darling Kelly Reichardt’s debut film River of Grass premiered in 1994, a film which she self described as a “road movie without the road.” In Reichardt’s film, a disillusioned young mother goes on the run with her secret lover after the two believe they’ve killed a man. Like the road movies before it, River of Grass revels in the motel as a metaphor for the in-between stage of life, the stage when one doesn’t know exactly where they stand.
Then, in the 2000s, the nostalgic groupie road story makes a comeback with the star-studded cult classic Almost Famous (Crowe, 2000). Almost Famous is a completely different kind of road movie than any of the ones mentioned before. It tells the story of a teenage music snob who goes on the road with an up-and-coming band; basically, it’s the dream of any dad who grew up in the ’70s. That’s probably why it became so iconic: viewers can live vicariously through the protagonist. But even though it’s distinct from earlier road movies, the same principles stand: character becomes disillusioned with their life, character abandons former life, character finds themselves on the road.
And in 2010, with Walter Salles and Sam Riley’s adaptation of On the Road, everything came full circle. While the road movie has changed and evolved, it’s never really lost its roots or forgotten the authors and directors that made it its own genre. Ann Charters said that in writing On the Road, Kerouac “had created a book that heralded a change of consciousness in the country.” And ever since, artists have been fascinated with what life is like on the road.
Alex Coburn is a first-year cinema and photography major who had a crush on Jack Kerouac in the seventh grade. You can reach them at