Kerouac often based his fictional characters on friends and family.
"Because of the objections of my early publishers I was not allowed to use the same personae names in each work."
The novel, written as a first-person memoir, has been criticized for its portrayal of American minority groups, especially African Americans, in a superficial light, often portraying them in a humble and primitive manner without showing insight into their culture or social position at the time. The position of jazz and jazz culture is central to the novel, tying together the themes of Kerouac's writing here as elsewhere, and expressed in the "spontaneous prose" style in which he composed most of his works. The following quotation from Chapter 1 illustrates the spontaneous prose style of The Subterraneans:
Making a new start, starting from fresh in the rain, 'Why should anyone want to hurt my little heart, my feet, my little hands, my skin that I'm wrapt in because God wants me warm and Inside, my toes—why did God make all this so decayable and dieable and harmable and wants to make me realize and scream—why the wild ground and bodies bare and breaks—I quaked when the giver creamed, when my father screamed, my mother dreamed—I started small and ballooned up and now I'm big and a naked child again and only to cry and fear.—Ah—Protect yourself, angel of no harm, you who've never and could never harm and crack another innocent in its shell and thin veiled pain—wrap a robe around you, honeylamb—protect yourself from harm and wait, till Daddy comes again, and Mama throws you warm inside her valley of the moon, loom at the loom of patient time, be happy in the mornings.
A 1960 film adaptation changed the African American character Mardou Fox, Kerouac's love interest, to a young French girl (played by Leslie Caron) to better fit both contemporary social and Hollywood palates. While it was derided and vehemently criticized by Allen Ginsberg among others, for its two-dimensional characters, it illustrates the way the film industry attempted to exploit the emerging popularity of this culture as it grew in San Francisco and Greenwich Village, New York.
A Greenwich Village beatnik bar setting had been used in Richard Quine's film Bell, Book and Candle (1958), but Ranald MacDougall's adaptation of Kerouac's novel, scripted by Robert Thom, was less successful.
The Subterraneans was one of the final MGM films produced by Arthur Freed, and features a score by André Previn and brief appearances by jazz singer Carmen McRae singing "Coffee Time," and saxophonists Gerry Mulligan, as a street priest, and Art Pepper. Comedian Arte Johnson plays the Gore Vidal character, here named Arial Lavalerra.
Leo is a 28-year-old novelist who still lives at home with his mother. One night he stumbles upon some beatniks at a coffee house. He falls in love with the beautiful but unstable Mardou Fox.
Roxanne warns Mardou away from Leo, who says his love for her is causing him writer's block. Mardou falls pregnant. She and Leo wind up together.Leslie Caron as Mardou Fox
George Peppard as Leo Percepied
Janice Rule as Roxanne
Roddy McDowall as Yuri Gligoric
Anne Seymour as Charlotte Percepied
Jim Hutton as Adam Moorad
Scott Marlowe as Julien Alexander
Arte Johnson as Arial Lavalerra
Ruth Storey as Analyst
Bert Freed as Bartender
Gerry Mulligan as Reverend Joshua Hoskins
Carmen McRae as Herself
The novel was optioned by Arthur Freed of MGM as a possible follow up to Some Came Running. Like that, it was originally intended to star Dean Martin. Nicole Maurey was announced to play the female lead.
Eventually George Peppard and Leslie Caron were signed. Roddy McDowall also joined the cast, his first film in nine years. Janice Rule was married to Robert Thom, who wrote the script.
According to MGM records the film earned only $340,000 in the US and Canada and $425,000 elsewhere resulting in a loss of $1,311,000.
The film score was composed, arranged and conducted by André Previn, with the motion picture also featuring Previn's jazz trio, and the soundtrack album was released on the MGM label in 1960.
Allmusic's Jason Ankeny noted, "André Previn had the good sense to recruit cool jazz giants including Gerry Mulligan, Russ Freeman, and Dave Bailey to perform his Subterraneans score: jazz not only fueled Kerouac's work, but his prose sought to evoke the rhythms and energy of bebop. Indeed, this music comes far closer to accurately capturing Kerouac's writing than any of the film's dialogue. Previn also deserves credit for articulating the sadness of the original novel, deftly combining horns and strings to create a score that is dark and emotive".
All compositions by André Previn except as indicated
André Previn – piano, arranger, conductor
Gerry Mulligan – baritone saxophone (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6 and 8–10)
Carmen McRae – vocals (track 5)
Art Farmer (tracks 4 & 9), Jack Sheldon (1, 3, 6, 8 & 10 and 12) – trumpet
Bob Enevoldsen – valve trombone (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6 and 9)
Art Pepper – alto saxophone (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6 & 8–10 and 12)
Bill Perkins – tenor saxophone (tracks 1, 3, 4, 6 and 9)
Russ Freeman – piano (tracks 4, 9 and 12)
Buddy Clark (tracks 4 & 9), Red Mitchell (tracks 1-3, 5–8, and 10–12) – bass
Dave Bailey (tracks 4 & 9), Shelly Manne (tracks 1–3, 5–8, and 10–12) – drums
Unidentified string section, clarinet and oboe (tracks 1, 3, 6, 8 and 10)
- "Why Are We Afraid" (Previn, Dory Langdon) – 1:57
- "Guido's Blackhawk" – 3:05
- "Two by Two" – 4:00
- "Bread and Wine" – 4:12
- "Coffee Time" (Harry Warren, Arthur Freed) – 2:43
- "A Rose and the End" – 3:24
- "Should I" (Nacio Herb Brown, Freed) – 2:28
- "Look Ma, No Clothes" – 1:32
- "Things are Looking Down" – 5:39
- "Analyst" – 4:19
- "Like Blue" – 1:58
- "Raising Caen" – 3:02