When Allen Ginsberg (Daniel Radcliffe) first encounters Lucien Carr (Dane DeHaan) in the Columbia University library, he's captivated. It's not just Carr's transfixing blue eyes and dangerous grin. It's that he is so obviously everything Ginsberg is not – extroverted, fearless and provocative. Right after Ginsberg spots him, Carr leaps up on a library table and promptly scandalizes the room.
Kill Your Darlings is one of those movies about famous people before they became famous. In this case they're the core players in what would become the Beat Generation – Ginsberg, Carr, William Burroughs (Ben Foster) and Jack Kerouac (Jack Huston). Unfortunately, like so many films about young, true-life world-shakers, this one struggles to inhabit the moment before the thunder breaks, and it fails to provide just the right amount of rumbling.
For its first half – before an event takes place that will rattle the souls and stiffen the resolve of these restless young men – director John Krokidas's first feature spends a lot of time hinting at what these guys will become by having them talk about what they want to do. They want to change the world, with art, no less, prodding postwar America out of its sleepy slump by tracking down taboos and rounding them up like so much forbidden big game. Indeed, one of the movie's most exuberant set pieces involves a raid on the university library to liberate all the most "dangerous" restricted texts. It's a fair prediction of the impact the Beats will have on American literature and culture at large, but it's also pure Hollywood histrionics, a kind of lit-movie riff on Animal House.
As Ginsberg, Radcliffe can't help but look like a closeted, lovestruck gay version of Harry Potter, especially with those glasses and the movie's stuffy-old-college setting. That casting fascinates because it emphasizes the extent to which magic and literary creation are both matters of liberation and conjuring. All vital acts of creation also involve some pain and sacrifice: You've got to kill your darlings to become yourself.
But is there any cinematic way of addressing the act of writing, especially of the kind that changed the world as we knew it? Is it possible to depict the youthful authors without reducing them to self-conscious, premonitory clichés? Is it possible that Ginsberg might have written Howl for reasons other than that he had the forbidden hots for Lucien Carr?
It is possible, but it takes a far more daring imagination than was used to make this movie. It takes a flight into the creative void that is either equal or analogous to the work itself, and that, of course, is risky, especially when you have the potential attention of several million Potter fans.
The most interesting movies about writing and writers in recent decades have been impressionistic accounts not just of the writer's life – which is about as fascinating as watching cement harden – but also of what might have gone on inside their heads. For example, there's the delusional paranoia that creeps up and overtakes the blocked screenwriter in the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink (1991), the excruciating isolation of Janet Frame in An Angel at My Table (1990), the journalist as stealth infiltrator depicted in Capote (2005), the boundary-defying rabbit hole that Spike Jonze's Adaptation (2002) plunges into, and especially – and most pertinently – David Cronenberg's movie version of Burroughs' Naked Lunch (1991).
A most radical adaptation of one of the most unfilmable texts of them all, Cronenberg's movie brilliantly harnessed some of the author's most outrageously paranoid and inextricably strange imaginings, not in the service of making a coherent story out of the book, but of luring us inside the kind of head that might have created it. Ultimately, Naked Lunch is more about Burroughs – or at least Cronenberg's interpretation of Burroughs – than it is about his book.
And what remains so striking about it is Cronenberg's understanding and acceptance of the differences between film and literature. His movie provides an inextricably cinematic rendering of Burroughs' fevered imagination from the inside out, and not a projection imposed from the outside in.
The strange thing about Kill Your Darlings is that it could have been about any group of college kids coming of age on the frontier of the permissible. Lust, love, drama, betrayal – all are the stuff of the most conventional stories, and among those cultural darlings that Beats would seek to kill.