1957 Letter from J.D. Salinger Explains Why CATCHER IN THE RYE Wouldn’t Work as a Movie

by     Posted 2 years, 52 days ago

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If we’re lucky, Catcher in the Rye will never be made into a movie.  It’s managed to avoid that fate for over sixty years, and hopefully it will continue to do so.  Not everything needs to be a movie, and I say that as someone who loves movies.  We live in an age where something always had to be translated into other things, and whoever owns the rights happily takes the money that translation provides.  J.D. Salinger was not one of those people and he never sold the rights for Catcher in the Rye.  Producers will continue to hunger for the opportunity to turn one of the greatest novels of all-time into something that can be viewed in under two hours, but Salinger wasn’t just being stodgy when he refused to give up the rights.  In a letter he wrote in 1957, he listed his reasons for why he couldn’t see Catcher in the Rye as a play or a motion picture.  Hit the jump for his arguments.

catcher-in-the-rye-book-coverThe letter popped up online about two years ago, but for those who didn’t see it, Cameron Crowe posted a partial copy on his website yesterday.  In the letter, Salinger lists the following reasons why he doesn’t think Catcher in the Rye can be translated to the stage or screen:

  • It’s a “novelistic” novel.  Salinger talks about the asides of Holden’s thoughts like “gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a way, his thoughts.”
  • The “immeasurably risky business of using actors.”  Salinger couldn’t envision a child actress playing Phoebe or a young actor playing Holden because even if they had “X”, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.
  • No director could get the necessary performances from these actors.

Salinger particularly couldn’t see the book being done as a stage play due to the medium’s technical limitations.

One could argue that Salinger simply didn’t have the imagination to consider what could be done with his novel, and it’s impossible to know what he would say about a film adaptation based on how far the medium has come since 1957 (he died in 2010 and no recorded comment on a Catcher in the Rye movie has been found past his letter).  But those arguments are beside the point.  To be honest, Salinger could have simply responded, “Fuck you.  That’s why,” and it would be a respectable answer.  We can dream about how such-and-such would make a good movie or TV show, but the original dreamer should always have the final say.  He or she doesn’t owe us an explanation, but I commend Salinger for providing his rationale to someone who asked for it.

Crowe published part of the letter on his website.  Here’s the full copy [via Moments in Time]:

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  • excpired

    I think most literary writers have trouble seeing their work adapted into other mediums. It is why they wrote novels and not screenplays or scripts. However, with advances in the technology of filmography I don’t think that any story can not be told in that medium. It may be difficult, not worth the trouble, or it may step outside the bounds of commonly accepted film techniques. But the form still can exist, one could easily re-work Holden Caulfield’s thoughts into voice-over or some other form (though it might turn it more into an art film than a hollywood lackluster).

    As for children capturing the essence of maturity far beyond their age. I think children have matured much in the years since J.D. Salinger wrote that letter, and are behaving far older than they are all to commonly. I don’t know how many 15 year old girls I’ve seen dressed up like street prostitutes and pulling it off, sadly, and I believe with the right actors and a good director a quality movie could be made. Is it necessary? Well, nothing really is. The question is, does someone out there have the passion to make this movie for its artistic merits (and have money be a stand-aside), because if its just about capitalizing on the popularity of the novel then there is plenty of other works to exploit.

  • Osiris

    I would use these same arguments to oppose the Ender’s Game adaptation.

  • amac

    i’ve seen this before. it’s not really recent news, but i wonder if this is circulating now because somebody is developing it.

  • Northern Star

    If producers are that hungry to turn immensely popular and influential novels into movies, then why did no studio(s) take the risk and turn Ayn Rand’s ‘Atlas Shrugged’ into a film… one word, POLITICS! Angelina Jolie was up for headlining it, Randall Wallace had written a 127-page screenplay for it, and Lionsgate and Relativity were going to stump up a measly $70m to make it in 2009/10, but lost their nerve…

  • Vas
  • Smith

    I don’t see why Salinger thought it couldn’t be adapted into a movie, it’s a pretty simple story:

    -Holden Caufield hates phonies
    -Holden gets mad at a swear word and then passes out from explosive diarrhea.
    -Roll credits

  • Rosencratnz

    I feel the same way about the upcoming adaptation of “On the Road”.

  • Alex–

    Kind of pointless really. Catcher in the Rye’s influence on teen coming of age movies has been huge.

  • Rev. Slappy

    A young pre-Titanic Leonardo DiCaprio would have made for a pretty fantastic Holden Caulfield.

  • JLC

    Eventually it will go into the public domain and then we’ll find out if it makes a decent movie.

  • Jack

    The question ultimately is whether or not there is enough interest outside of the things that he is talking about. Whether there is enough story to carry this whole thing. Saying no directors can catch the mood or get the performances seems short-sighted though.

  • Timm

    Mr. Salinger talked at length about how important he thought the “art of writing” is and I don’t think he saw it as just a “medium.” I think I read a quote where he was saying something along the lines of(Forgive me J.D. for the paraphrase, I know you’d kill me for this),”Writing is something that is in you, and a part of you.” While I don’t know how truly autobiographical Salinger’s writings were, a lot of his writing spoke very negatively of film and the film world.

    Fun fact concerning Salinger though, despite seemingly hating Hollywood and film, his son Matt Salinger wen’t on to become an actor and starred as the first Captain America.

  • Timm

    Oh, and thanks for posting this! I hadn’t see it before.

  • scape

    One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great comparison. Kesey didn’t want the film made, never saw it, and for many of the same reasons.

    But the film did convey most themes of the novel very well, and is a masterpiece of filmmaking.

    As for directors, actors, screenwriters and other media not being able to experience or express the written word. Well, that sounds like Holden Caulfield still talking shit.

  • Kat

    As a teenager, I was huge fan of this novel, and read it more times than I can remember. While I do believe it could be adapted to a film, such an act would overlay one single person’s interpretation of Holden Caulfield’s character onto the imagination of generations of young people forever, thereby interfering with the process of integrating Holden Caulfield unique voice into one’s own psyche. For everyone who has hated a phony, and the indifference, prejudice and short-sightedness of people in this world, Holden Caulfield was a hero. By making a movie about this hero (which is, in the end, really our own conscience in the blending into the character of Holden) you are potentially depriving people of their own character-making process with their projected self. While I would probably really enjoy seeing this book made into a film, it’s only because I am tired of reading the book now :-) I think having seen a film before reading the book would have ruined it for me. Much like “Eat Pray Love” as a movie left me cold and flat.

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  • Al

    Ultimately if this was to be adapted to film it would go against everything Holden stood for, if this book was turned into a film it would defeat the entire purpose of the book in the first place, and could very well be considered the greatest juxtaposition in the history of cinema. The whole process of adapting novels into film is one of the highest forms of capital gain known to man and Holden, who would deem their creators “phonies”, wants rid his world of these beings.

  • cameron

    I think Wes Anderson could pull it off.

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  • Phillip

    I personally believe that I my self would make a wonderful Holden.

  • Timothy

    all of you are niggers

  • Jim

    ^them fuckin niggers

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