1957 Letter from J.D. Salinger Explains Why CATCHER IN THE RYE Wouldn’t Work as a Movie

     February 23, 2012


If we’re lucky, Catcher in the Rye will never be made into a movie.  It’s managed to avoid that fate for over sixty years, and hopefully it will continue to do so.  Not everything needs to be a movie, and I say that as someone who loves movies.  We live in an age where something always had to be translated into other things, and whoever owns the rights happily takes the money that translation provides.  J.D. Salinger was not one of those people and he never sold the rights for Catcher in the Rye.  Producers will continue to hunger for the opportunity to turn one of the greatest novels of all-time into something that can be viewed in under two hours, but Salinger wasn’t just being stodgy when he refused to give up the rights.  In a letter he wrote in 1957, he listed his reasons for why he couldn’t see Catcher in the Rye as a play or a motion picture.  Hit the jump for his arguments.

catcher-in-the-rye-book-coverThe letter popped up online about two years ago, but for those who didn’t see it, Cameron Crowe posted a partial copy on his website yesterday.  In the letter, Salinger lists the following reasons why he doesn’t think Catcher in the Rye can be translated to the stage or screen:

  • It’s a “novelistic” novel.  Salinger talks about the asides of Holden’s thoughts like “gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a way, his thoughts.”
  • The “immeasurably risky business of using actors.”  Salinger couldn’t envision a child actress playing Phoebe or a young actor playing Holden because even if they had “X”, they wouldn’t know what to do with it.
  • No director could get the necessary performances from these actors.

Salinger particularly couldn’t see the book being done as a stage play due to the medium’s technical limitations.

One could argue that Salinger simply didn’t have the imagination to consider what could be done with his novel, and it’s impossible to know what he would say about a film adaptation based on how far the medium has come since 1957 (he died in 2010 and no recorded comment on a Catcher in the Rye movie has been found past his letter).  But those arguments are beside the point.  To be honest, Salinger could have simply responded, “Fuck you.  That’s why,” and it would be a respectable answer.  We can dream about how such-and-such would make a good movie or TV show, but the original dreamer should always have the final say.  He or she doesn’t owe us an explanation, but I commend Salinger for providing his rationale to someone who asked for it.

Crowe published part of the letter on his website.  Here’s the full copy [via Moments in Time]:



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