Salinger: Beyond Apocrypha

Last week someone asked me if Thistledown had published any books that had been made into movies. While answering and chatting about book-to-film metamorphosis, an old familiar question arose from our conversation — which great novels had never been made into movies and why not? We spent half an hour talking about some obvious ones including those wild and sexy Bible stories that could be money-makers. We ended up discussing some of the great novels that just didn’t lend themselves to film. Though we differed in opinion on some, one we both agreed upon was Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.

I had long ago read Salinger’s thoughts on this in a letter he had written to a producer. Quite simply, he believed it couldn’t be done without grievous injury to the novel and to Holden Caulfield, its narrator. But while his death in January of 2010 opens the possibility that someone will cash in on the film rights, it seems more likely that if his will allows it, and if the rights are sold by his surviving family members or some slick literary agent like Andrew Wylie, that the project will be all about the money and not about the work, and will likely fail.

Salinger, like some famous writers before him, bought into a code of seclusion after a brief, intense and disturbing encounter with success. As Charles McGrath in the New York Times tells it:  But success, once it arrived, paled quickly for him. He told the editors of Saturday Review that he was “good and sick” of seeing his photograph on the dust jacket of The Catcher in the Rye and demanded that it be removed from subsequent editions. He ordered his agent to burn any fan mail. In 1953 Mr. Salinger, who had been living on East 57th Street in Manhattan, fled the literary world altogether and moved to a 90-acre compound on a wooded hillside in Cornish. He seemed to be fulfilling Holden’s desire to build himself “a little cabin somewhere with the dough I made and live there for the rest of my life,” away from “any goddam stupid conversation with anybody.”

For the next 50 years Salinger would guard his privacy with a rabid passion. No family member or any other mortal would break the spell that he wove inside his walled estate in Cornish, New Hampshire. One can see his tenacity in rare photographs that have emerged that make his point about the public’s intrusion clear.

Whether running off would-be vultures of Catcher fame in the courts or protecting the privacy of his life by refusing to publish his writing, the reclusive Salinger managed to keep the world at bay. There were flares of publicity occasionally, when his daughter published her dark memoir Dream Catcher, or his ex-lover Joyce Maynard published her account of their affair and sold letters Salinger had written her. But Salinger always emerged protected somehow. Even the titillating love letters that Maynard sold for $156K found their way back to him when millionaire Peter Norton of computer software fame, who had bought them, is said to have returned them to Salinger.

Whether or not a movie version of The Catcher in the Rye gets made, or any of Salinger’s speculated half dozen unpublished manuscripts find their way to the market will be anti-climactic. In the end Salinger will always be about the book The Catcher in the Rye. Various reports state that Catcher has sold more than 60 million copies and still sells more than 250,000 copies annually, that Catcher that has never been out of print since first released by Little, Brown way back in 1951. This is the very stuff that makes mythologies and keeps book publishing alive. So while some incredibly smart director with an amazing acumen for casting Holden may appear, he or she will likely discover that Salinger knew what he was doing by keeping Catcher off the big screen. Some books will just not be seduced by a camera.