“The Catcher in the Rye” is a masterpiece of a book. Having just finished reading it, I tweeted that I feel as though I’ve “grown as an intellectual and a person after this truly amazing book.”
And for as good as it is, the book’s reputation precedes it possibly more than any other work of fiction. I don’t mean to refer to the book’s popularity, which surely pales in comparison to Harry Potter if the buzz for this eighth movie is any evidence.
Rather, its reputation is notorious. Few books are such a cult staple. No book has been as censored. And no novel as influential as “The Catcher in the Rye” has ever gone without a proper film adaptation for this long.
The main reason for this is because of the author, J.D. Salinger. His short story ”Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” was made into a film called “My Foolish Heart,” which despite being nominated for two Oscars took great liberties from the initial story and embarrassed Salinger.
He vowed to never let Hollywood touch his masterpiece, claiming he preferred to be left alone because he only wrote for his own enjoyment.
But there’s more to it than that, I think. Many directors have tried over the years to adapt the novel, and even more actors have fought for the chance to play the book’s hero Holden Caulfield.
Directors as diverse as Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan (stage adaptation), Steven Spielberg and Jerry Lewis have pursued the rights to this gold mine of a script, and Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo Dicaprio and Tobey Maguire all have fought for this role of a lifetime.
But such a book would’ve been impossible to adapt in 1951 when the book was first published. The production code would’ve never allowed it.
Reading the book, I realized how groundbreaking it must’ve been. In Holden we have a foul-mouthed, sarcastic, complaining, apathetic and outspoken character. The book flies along at such speeds because Holden’s mind is running like clockwork as he criticizes the people he sees as phonies and the things he sees as pointless and bad, which is everyone and everything.
To have talked or even thought the way Holden did was beyond taboo for its time. As I read, I used a flashcard of a movie quote as a bookmark. The quote was the infamous, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn.” Audiences were shocked to hear Clark Gable even use that four-letter word. Imagine how they would’ve reacted to Holden’s dialogue.
But “The Catcher in the Rye” has aged brilliantly. Holden is, what we would today call, a cynic.
To despise what he does for the reasons he has are not all that foreign today, and he would likely blend in perfectly on any college campus. Ironically or perhaps sadly, his growth by the end of the novel is a level of maturity most kids like him never attain.
So to make a belabored point, “The Catcher in the Rye” would have to be a modern day adaptation given what we know about film history and the production code. Sure the story could’ve been adapted in the early 1950s, but “The Catcher in the Rye” is an excellent example of style over story and form over function. The journey of a teenager in New York trying to avoid his parents is not exactly riveting, but Holden’s narration and Salinger’s conversational prose turn the pages for us.
Thus, any film of “The Catcher in the Rye” would have to be very attentive to the screenplay. The book is a literary experience and not as much of a visual one. Salinger’s writing is engaging, but creating mental images is not his focus. The trick of the film would be towing the line between a film that revels in its visuals and one that plays like an illustrated transcript.
On both ends of that spectrum we can find contemporary directors who would be horribly wrong for the project.
The first is Terrence Malick, who based on a rumor on Wikipedia was assigned to the film shortly after Salinger passed away. Malick, although a great director of “Days of Heaven” and the recent “The Tree of Life,” is a visual auteur. His images evoke emotions more than his words.
The second that came to mind for me on the opposite end of the spectrum is hardly a candidate, but his meteoric rise as a director cannot be denied. Christopher Nolan is the sort of big name director that cult fanboys of the book might flock to, but Nolan is too in love with his words and his concepts. Lest “The Catcher in the Rye” relentlessly talk at us the way “Inception” explains its logic, he would not be a good choice either.
My first nomination would be the Coen Brothers. What other pair of directors and screenwriters of recent years have produced such consistently high quality product? Their dialogue is always brisk and fluid, and while always inventive cinematically, their movies are always performance driven. They could imbue in Holden every inch of wit and cynical charm he’s famous for while delivering the period vibe as well. And they did a bang up job finding Hailee Steinfeld for “True Grit.” Their casting director could surely locate the perfect, unknown Holden, and quite possibly the even harder to cast Phoebe (excuse me, “old Phoebe”).
My second nomination was based on one of Holden’s potential casting choices many years back. John Cusack said that one of his biggest regrets of turning 21 was that he was too old to play Holden Caulfield. And to be fair, the way I envisioned Holden addressing the readers was very similar to the way Cusack performed monologues throughout “High Fidelity.”
The character in Stephen Frears’ hilarious and clever music romance was a perfect blend of conversational and direct, intelligent and vulnerable and charming and sarcastic. Perhaps fellow novelist Nick Hornby should write the screenplay.
The book is considered unfilmable because there really is a shortage of directors who could tackle such a literary masterpiece. Although, to say something is “unfilmable” is already an exaggeration, one that presumes all films should be strict adaptations of their source material.
It’s also hard to imagine casting anyone when the part demands someone so young. Salinger himself said the only person who could ever play Holden was himself, opposite Margaret O’Brien as, my guess would be, Sally Hayes. Maybe right now, Jesse Eisenberg is the best and youngest actor capable of being as dry as Holden, but maybe even that’s a stretch, least of all in a few years.
Until the day when a truly worthy adaptation does make its way to the movies, “The Catcher in the Rye” will remain shrouded in its own mystique, and all the phonies who claimed they could tackle a masterpiece will be forced to try again another day.