Catcher in the Rye: why it might not be worth filming
There’s lot of talk of a ‘Catcher’ film - but it is too dated for today?
There has been increasing speculation since the death of J D Salinger 12 days ago that The Catcher in the Rye, one of America's most iconic novels, might finally be filmed. But will Hollywood even want to make a movie of a book that means so much to so many teenagers in the Fifties and Sixties, but whose influence may now be fading?
Catcher was never filmed in Salinger's lifetime because the author refused to sell the rights, saying the role of anti-hero Holden Caulfield was "essentially unactable" - much to the frustration of countless Hollywood stars, from Marlon Brando to Jack Nicholson to Leonardo DiCaprio, who were desperate to prove him wrong.
But the main reason Salinger wouldn't allow it was that a film had already been made of his short story Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut - and he loathed the result. Renamed My Foolish Heart, it took liberties with Salinger's story and was a commercial disaster.
When the producer Samuel Goldwyn, responsible for My Foolish Heart, asked the author if could buy the rights to Catcher, Salinger turned him down flat. However, he did tell Goldwyn that he was considering putting on a play based on the novel, and that he intended to take the part of Holden Caulfield opposite the actress Margaret O'Brien - and, if he couldn't play the part himself, to "forget about it".
The question now is whether, following his death on January 27 at the age of 91, his literary executors might agree to sell the rights.
Salinger's literary agent, Phyllis Westberg, told the Hollywood Reporter the day after his death that nothing had changed regarding film rights. "Everyone knows that he did not want it to happen," she said.
But optimists have pounced on the fact that Salinger clearly predicted a film when he wrote in 1957: "It is possible that one day the rights will be sold. There's an ever-looming possibility that I won't die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy."
Enthusiasts for a film of The Catcher in the Rye also point to the fact that Salinger's daughter Margaret was critical of her father in her 2000 memoir Dream Catcher. They are hoping that she has more of a say than Westberg. As one New York publishing commentator put it, "Salinger hadn't published anything for over 40 years so it's very possible his agent is, how can I put it, out of the loop?"
But if the estate does allow a film, would any studio be willing to fund it? The last occasion a post-war American classic was filmed, it did not turn out happily. Revolutionary Road, based on Richard Yates's 1961 novel of suburban hell, starring Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio (above), was a rare critical flop for director Sam Mendes and took only $22m at the US box office. What was undoubtedly a great American novel - on a par with Catcher, if not as well known - simply did not resonate with today's audience.
And that could be the fate of The Catcher in the Rye, too, even if 65 million copies have been sold since 1951.
An enterprising reporter at New Hampshire's Concord Monitor visited high school English language classes following Salinger's death. At Prospect Mountain High, pupils found Holden Caulfield "whiney, directionless, even a tad hypocritical".
Their teacher, who still had his dog-eared copy from his own childhood, said: "I think we don't teach it a lot because we all recognise how much we love it. And we don't want to impose our love on the kids, instead of meeting them where they are."
Pupils said Salinger's depiction of teenage disaffection - Holden's all-night drinking, his conversation with a prostitute, the "goddamns" that punctuate his story - was dated. Today Holden wouldn't walk out of school - he'd go to the high school's guidance department "to talk or vent". ·
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