Over the years, directors and producers including Billy Wilder, Jerry Lewis, Steven Spielberg, and Harvey Weinstein all tried and failed to land the rights to an adaptation of J.D. Salinger‘s most famous work, “The Catcher in the Rye.” After being deeply dissatisfied with 1949′s “My Foolish Heart,” the infamously reclusive author refused to license the film rights to any of his work. With his death earlier this year, it was speculated that his heirs may have the freedom to sell those rights. But so far, nothing has been announced.
An article in The Telegraph over the weekend suggested that a film adaptation of the beloved novel has inched closer to inevitability. While Salinger himself called the part of Holden Caulfield “unactable,” he also acknowledged that the film rights to the book made for an attractive insurance policy for his family and mused that he was pleased he wouldn’t be around to see the resulting film.
Make no mistake, even if they have to wait an additional 30-plus years for the book’s copyright to expire, Hollywood will make this movie. Assuming the town that can’t take no for an answer gets its way sooner rather than later, here are The Top 10 Things The Catcher in the Rye Movie Should Do.
10. Make it a period piece.
Holden Caulfield does not need to rail against text messaging or all the phonies on his Facebook to be relevant. Updating him to present day would be a huge mistake. The setting has actually gone a long way towards making it feel timeless, and one of the greatest sources of its appeal is the realization that a character that is older than your parents (or grandparents) has a lot of the same insecurities.
Also, the setting of late-40s era New York is so vividly realized through Caulfield’s eyes that it’d be a shame to not try to commit it to film. The approach should be similar to “Mad Men” or “No Country for Old Men,” though. Capturing the feel of the era is more important than trying to recreate a specific year. A lot of the furniture and clothes should feel lived in or much older. Of course Caulfield’s upscale family and friends would have the means to afford more luxurious and new items.
In the book, Caulfield says the following about actors:
“In the first place, I hate actors. They never act like people. They just think they do. Some of the good ones do, in a very slight way, but not in a way that’s fun to watch. And if an actor’s good, you can always tell he knows he’s good, and that spoils it.”
Caulfield has served as a cipher for disaffected youth everywhere for over half a century. It’s going to be extremely difficult to cast him. The key is going to be to find someone who can just be him naturally, someone with the sad eyes and face of a world-weary child, but with the body of a man.
An unknown is more ideal because there’s less baggage and the audience can accept the reality of the character more easily. Dustin Hoffman in “The Graduate,” Jason Schwartzman in “Rushmore,” and Patrick Fugit in “Almost Famous” were all able to simply be their characters because the audience was not otherwise familiar with them at the time.
The age of the actor is also key. Hollywood tends to cast twenty-somethings as teenagers. This should be avoided. Casting a 15 or 16-year-old will be key to making the tragedy of the character work.
I believe the film can be made with no narration. Caulfield talks so much to other characters that it would be impossible for his perspective and his voice not to come across. A lot of the first person, stream-of-consciousness narration can be captured via a look of frustration, a sideways glance, or an awkward pause.
Capturing the thoughts and voice of the character visually is critical to creating an enduring cinematic representation of him. While the original novel “The Graduate” was told in third person, the film version of Benjamin Braddock was very similar to an older Caulfield and it succeeded in bringing the character to life without needing narration. Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” also tells a tale with similarities to “The Catcher in the Rye” without needing narration either. It can be done…
7. Put capturing the tone above recreating the plot
…which brings me to the next point. Who really remembers exactly what happens in novel, even after reading it? Recreating every event described in the novel is much less critical than capturing the tone of the book with its nervous energy and loneliness and longing and insecurity. Don’t be afraid of keeping the plot loose if it ultimately makes for a better character study.
6. Don’t forget, it’s supposed to be funny (but not a comedy)
Caulfield is ultimately lonely and haunted by his brother’s death, but humor is his primary coping mechanism. He tries to laugh off everything, especially his own insecurities. He constantly mentions how everything “kills” him, and he tends to not take anything seriously. He can be quite jovial at times, and the movie needs to reflect that. In the same way that “The Man Who Wasn’t There,” and “Rushmore” were funny, this can be too.
Emotional truth is the most important thing for the film to get right. Showing, and not telling how Caulfield feels is going to be critical. “Hip” or “edgy” directors should be kept far away from this in favor of someone who isn’t afraid to let a scene play out in an approach similar to that of Terrence Malick with “Badlands,” Hal Ashby with “Bound for Glory,” the Coen Brothers with “No Country for Old Men,” or Paul Thomas Anderson with “There Will Be Blood.”
4. Lush photography, on location, with natural lighting
Similarly, the photography embraced by those films would also work best here. Studio sets and traditional lighting can feel artificial and might take the audience out of the picture in this case. Also, stick with film. Digital continues to make advances, but it’s not there yet. And shoot it in vibrant, period appropriate color.
3. No self-referential humor, keep “name actors” to a minimum
While Holden wanders the streets of New York, he should not pass a marquee advertising “Dear Ruth” starring Joan Caulfield and William Holden. He should not meet a crotchety old man named Jerome who asks to be left alone.
And actors who either once hoped to play Caulfield or played Caulfield-like characters do not need to show up in cameos. Casting Leonardo DiCaprio as his older brother D.B. or Dustin Hoffman as Mr. Spencer the history teacher may be clever, but it’s not worth the distraction.
65 Million Copies of “The Catcher in the Rye” have been sold worldwide. Its title alone should guarantee an audience. There is a risk that mainstream audiences may not take it seriously if it does not feature at least one face they recognize, but that type of casting should be kept to a minimum.
2. Sparse, period-appropriate soundtrack.
Caulfield describes a lot of music in the book, from the nightclub jazz to the record he buys for his sister. There’s a lot of room for incidental music, but a sparse score otherwise is appropriate. An epic, orchestral John Williams or James Horner-esque score would only derail the film by making it feel, well, phony.
1. Ambiguity is your friend.
Caulfield is the classic unreliable narrator. For the film to truly capture his voice and perspective, a certain level of ambiguity should be embraced. What happens should be pretty clear, but exactly what it means should not. Flashbacks and dream sequences may be appropriate depending on how they’re handled. As far as the book goes, it pretty clearly states that Holden has been committed to a mental health facility after some sort of nervous collapse. The film might want to close slightly earlier, in a manner similar to “The Graduate,” with Holden and Phoebe hand in hand as he turns to face their parents, with a mix of relief and dread on his face.