The Big If… “The Catcher In The Rye” Screenplay

JD_SalingerWhen J.D. Salinger died earlier this year, I felt ambivalent, despite the fact that I’d nearly worshiped him in high school as one of the only writers out there who “got” what it was like to be a smart and disillusioned teen. Somewhere along the line, I either stopped being a smart, disillusioned teen or realized that everyone believed themselves to be smart and disillusioned and so rejected it in favor of some other modus operandi.

Along the way, I also found out more about J.D. Salinger – his reclusive lifestyle, refusal to publish more novels, his dabbling in everything from Dianetics, homeopathy and macrobiotics to urine therapy – and I found it a big turn-off. In 1999, I read Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home In The World, which painted a picture of a pathetic old man with high ideals cloistered away in a compound. This was not my hero. This was a mere mortal who was as confused about life as the rest of us.

The Catcher in The Rye has always been a book I read in the fall. I first read on a weekend trip with my parents to visit my sister at college. I sat in the backseat of the car on the way home, reading the book in the dying light, moving it ever closer to my face so I could see the words. I remember thinking that my parents had probably never read the book, that if they had they probably entirely missed its point and that I never wanted to become a phony or a moron.

The fall of my freshman year at college, my boyfriend and I ended up at a used bookstore somewhere far from our college town, because this is what we did. We left campus to go out and find strange places that represented “real life” – jazz clubs, movie theaters, used book stores, antique shops. I found a hardcover copy of Catcher there. It was not a first edition and did not have its dust jacket but I remember thinking that I needed to own a hardcover copy, to show that I was a serious Salinger fan. I then spent a few days reading it and embracing it all over again.

After all, I somehow fancied myself a rebel like Holden Caulfield. During the biggest football game of the year that fall, I spent the day riding around with a friend-of-a-friend who was in town to visit his friends (my dorm mates) for the Big Game weekend but didn’t actually have a ticket to the game. He was not a college student himself. He worked in a record store or a bookstore or waited tables and wasn’t really that interesting.

We drove around Lansing and stopped to eat at a nearly-deserted Chinese buffet while my peers were tailgating, getting drunk, making friendships to last a lifetime, etc. etc. To me, avoiding the game was an appropriate anti-football, anti-establishment thing to do. Never mind the fact that I had elected to go to a state university, a Big Ten school, no less, when my parents would have gladly sent me elsewhere.

So in honor of tradition, I’m reading the book again this fall. My precious hardcover Catcher copy is worth nothing. It smells like a hundred damp basements, mildewed book crates, dust and maybe a slight whiff of cat pee. One of the lower corners got wet at some point so the pages are wavy and stained sepia. A cat might have thrown up on the front cover at one point. On the inside cover someone wrote with pencil about other, valuable editions. “Dust Jacket w/photo, Boston 1951, $125.” Yeah, that’s not the edition I have.

Of course, with Salinger’s death came a lot of speculation about manuscripts for novels hidden away in his home and the possibility of someone finally securing film rights to The Catcher In The Rye. Although Salinger was often portrayed as someone with nothing but scorn for films and Hollywood – either because he said it or because his characters, like Holden Caulfield, (“I hate the movies like poison.”) said it – the truth was that he was a film buff who had gotten his feelings and pride hurt by a horrible Hollywood adaptation of one of his short stories (“Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” which was made into the film My Foolish Heart). After that bad experience, he never permitted film adaptations to be made from his work.

And yet, The Catcher In The Rye was supposedly first conceived of as a play about Holden Caulfield, who first appeared in Salinger’s short story “Slight Rebellion off Madison.” Salinger talked about starring in the play himself, as Holden.

As I’m reading, I’m thinking about the possibility of a Catcher In The Rye screenplay. It’s fun to think about, mostly because it’s a taboo subject for Salinger fans. Much like the Second Commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me,” Salinger purists live by the commandment, “Thou shall never condone nor enjoy a film adaptation of Cather In The Rye.” But I started to look at it with fresh eyes, to see if, in fact, there is something there to adapt without completely ruining it. The allure of the book is Holden’s voice – it’s a first person story that, at the time, was completely original in tone and language. Indeed, most of the film dialog is right there on the page, and could be lifted word-by-word, because Salinger wrote exactly as people of that era would talk. But would there be a thoughtful and creative way to knit together scenes into sequences and sequences into acts and acts into a cohesive movie that leaves viewers feeling the way they feel when they turned the last page of the book as readers?

What will follow in subsequent posts  is my outline and selection/creation of scenes, act by act, that will create an overview of The Catcher In The Rye, the movie. Act II, the long act where “everything happens” will have to be broken into more than one post so as not to overburden the readers. And when we’re all the way through Act III, I’ll talk about the fun stuff, like casting, director, artwork, etc.

We’ll begin our fall journey, shortly, to Thomsen Hill on the Pencey campus…

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