Goddam Hollywood Phonies

Catcher in the Rye was never adapted, but its influence is everywhere.

Also in Slate: Stephen Metcalf on Salinger’s genius; Nathan Heller on Nine Stories; Chris Wilson on “ Seymour: An Introduction“; Jody Rosen on Salinger’s New YorkDonald Fagen on his love for Franny Glass.

“If there’s one thing I hate,” Holden Caulfield announces on Page 2 of The Catcher in the Rye, it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.” Holden’s creator, by all appearances, felt the same. J.D. Salinger was approached all his life by producers, screenwriters, and actors (including Elia Kazan, Billy Wilder, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo di Caprio, and Jerry Lewis, who identified deeply with the book despite being decades too old to play the part). But Salinger obstinately refused to relinquish the rights to the novel. He explains his reasons in this 1957 letter to one Mr. Herbert: “The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. … The weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it. … He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique.”

Certainly, it’s true that the first obstacle facing a director would be capturing Holden’s rambling, idiosyncratic, unmistakable voice, but wouldn’t that be the case for any adaptation of a first-person novel? If you read on, Salinger’s resistance to filming Catcher seems to reside somewhere deeper: “Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biassed [sic] opinion, is essentially unactable. A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn’t nearly be enough. It would take someone with X to bring it off, and no very young man even if he has X quite knows what to do with it.” Joyce Maynard, a writer who lived with Salinger for a year at the age of 18 and later published a memoir about their time together, has said that the only person who could satisfactorily play Holden would be Salinger himself. Indeed, in a letter written shortly after the book’s publication, Salinger imagined a stage adaptation that would star the author himself as Holden and the child actress Margaret O’Brien as his little sister Phoebe Caulfield.

In this respect as in many others, J.D. Salinger’s biography and his work seem to mirror one another so completely as to render interpretation unnecessary. Just as Holden refused to engage with the “lousy” world of adult responsibilities and the crass struggle for social prestige, Salinger kept his creation shielded from the phony grasping of Hollywood. And just as Salinger retreated into his own enigmatic authorial persona—the writer defined by his refusal to write, or, at any rate, to publish—Holden Caulfield came to represent the uncastable sublime: a character whom everyone identifies with but who no one is allowed to play. In an interview with Premiere magazine in 1987, John Cusack—the very prototype of the “Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat”—remarked that his one regret about turning 21 was that he was now too old to play Holden Caulfield. As Salinger grew old, cloistered away on his property in Cornish, N.H., generations of sensitive young men would age into and out of the longed-for but untouchable role.

But there’s another way of looking at Holden Caulfield’s cinematic career. An argument can be made that the Pencey Prep dropout managed to escape from the maroon-and-gold confines of the iconic Bantam paperback and show up, thinly disguised, in the majority of American coming-of-age films of the past half-century. Though Catcher was never filmed, Holden Caulfield has had perhaps the longest cinematic afterlife of any modern fictional hero.

Depending how broadly you define Holden’s reach, he’s been the animating spirit behind nearly every disaffected young man in a movie made since the book came out in 1951. His DNA is detectable even in such phenotypically un-Holdenesque specimens as Marlon Brando in The Wild One (“What are you rebelling against?” “Whaddya got?”) and James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause (“If I had one day when I didn’t have to be all confused and I didn’t have to feel that I was ashamed of everything. If I felt that I belonged someplace. You know?”) Each decade creates its own Holdens: Witness Dustin Hoffman’s Benjamin Braddock in The Graduate (1967), numbed by the pressure of adult expectations, cornered at his college-graduation party by a middle-aged businessman eager to impart the significance of “one word: plastics.” Even Woody Allen, in the ‘70s, channeled Holden in his way, skewering “phonies” like the Marshall McLuhan expert in Annie Hall and expounding on his division of life into “the horrible and the miserable.”

The ‘90s and early 2000s saw a fresh wave of variations on Holdenesque angst with films like Tadpole, Donnie Darko, and Igby Goes Down. There have also been female Holden variants, like Molly Ringwald’s sardonic Sixteen Candles character, the alienated high-school girls of Ghost World, or Natasha Lyonne’s insecure but sharp-witted teenage protagonist in The Slums of Beverly Hills. Wes Anderson, whose entire oeuvre is a gloss on Salinger, may have come closer than anyone to finally filming Catcher in the Rye when he made Rushmore in 1999. Though Jason Schwartzman’s Max Fischer is more socially adroit than Holden (and though, far from fleeing prep school, he loves it enough to experience his suspension as a painful exile), Max’s pie-eyed dedication to impossible standards of purity and authenticity, and his adolescent refusal to compromise, are pure Caulfield.

Another incarnation of Salinger’sdepressive adolescent consists of those movie characters who consciously enact their identification with Holden, sometimes even carrying Catcher around as a talisman of their own alienation and specialness. Jake Gyllenhaal, in The Good Girl, plays a character who is both named Holden and obsessed with Holden (though it’s possible he’s renamed himself after the character; the needy big-box-store cashier he plays is so unbalanced we never entirely trust his word). The Good Girl’s story hinges on Gyllenhaal-as-Holden’s profound misreading of Holden: “He’s put upon by society, the hypocrisy of the world,” he explains to Jennifer Aniston at the beginning of the movie. Everything that follows, from their ill-advised adulterous affair to Gyllenhaal-as-Holden’s final act of violence, springs from the characters’ overidentification with the narrator’s surface self-pity. They’re unable to see that Holden Caulfield is the very definition of an unreliable narrator, not a dispenser of nihilist wisdom but an immature boy with grandiosity issues.

In the movies at least, misreading Holden, appropriating him for one’s own less-than-pure purposes, appears to be a key part of reading him. In this clip from Six Degrees of Separation, the con artist played by Will Smith has an extended monologue on the utility of Catcher as a “manifesto of hate” for sociopaths. And then there’s whatever awful nightmare of a movie must have been playing in Mark David Chapman’s head when he marshaled Catcher in the Rye as evidence to convince himself that John Lennon was a “phony” who deserved execution. (These events have been made into a real movie, the 2006 docudrama The Killing of John Lennon, a film I’ve never been able to watch for the simple reason that everything to do with the murder of John Lennon turns my stomach.)

There is one extant “adaptation” of The Catcher in the Rye: a 75-minute experimental film by that title directed by Nigel Tomm in 2008, which is available for viewing in its entirety on IMDB. Like all of Tomm’s films, Catcher in the Rye consists of a single unchanging solid-colored screen—in Catcher’s case, blue; other literary adaptations by Tomm include Waiting for Godot (green), the Qu’ran (orange) and The Brothers Karamazov (purple). It’s not clear whether J.D. Salinger was aware of the existence of this abstract “interpretation” of his first book, or how Tomm cleared the legal hurdle Salinger put in place all those years ago. But in a strange way, it seems as if Salinger wouldn’t have minded. The pure abstract emptiness of Tomm’s film is a kind of response to that letter the author wrote to a producer back in 1957: If Catcher in the Rye is indeed, as Salinger insisted, unfilmable, then perhaps the best possible version of the novel is an hour and 15 minutes of nothing at all.

Slate V: Video interpretations of The Catcher in the Rye.