A film adaptation of On the Road had been proposed in 1957 when Jack Kerouac wrote a one-page letter to actor Marlon Brando, suggesting that he play Dean Moriarty while Kerouac would portray Sal Paradise. Brando never responded to the letter; later on Warner Bros. offered $110,000 for the rights to Kerouac's book, but his agent, Sterling Lord, declined it, hoping for a $150,000 deal from Paramount Pictures, which did not occur.
The film rights were bought in 1980 by producer Francis Ford Coppola for $95,000. Coppola tried out several screenwriters, including Michael Herr, Barry Gifford, and novelist Russell Banks, even writing a draft himself with his son Roman, before settling on José Rivera. Several different plans were considered: Joel Schumacher as director, with Billy Crudup as Sal Paradise, and Colin Farrell as Dean Moriarty; then Ethan Hawke as Paradise and Brad Pitt as Moriarty; in 1995, he planned to shoot on black-and-white 16mm film and held auditions with poet Allen Ginsberg in attendance, but all those projects fell through.
After seeing Walter Salles's The Motorcycle Diaries, Coppola appointed Salles to direct the movie. In preparation for the film, Salles traveled the United States, tracing Kerouac's journey and filming a documentary on the search for On the Road. Sam Riley starred as Sal Paradise. Garrett Hedlund portrayed Dean Moriarty. Kristen Stewart played Mary Lou. Kirsten Dunst portrayed Camille. The film screened at the Cannes Film Festival in 2012 and was nominated for the Palme d'Or.
In 2007, BBC Four aired Russell Brand On the Road, a documentary presented by Russell Brand and Matt Morgan about Kerouac, focusing on On the Road. The documentary American Road, which explores the mystique of the road in US culture and contains an ample section on Kerouac, premiered at the AMFM Festival in California on 14 June 2013 when it won the award for Best Documentary.