Why The Catcher in the Rye Was Not Made Into a Movie

Imagine yourself in a war — a war as uncertain and violent as World War 2 — and in your pocket, you carried a piece of writing, six chapters of a precious and personal project. Occasionally, you would pull it out and rework in those brief — not so peaceful — moments. 

Imagine having your work travel with you as you stormed the beaches of Normandy, survived the Battle of the Bulge and marched through concentration camps in Nazi Germany. What would this piece of writing become? In Jerome David Salinger’s case that piece of work is The Catcher in the Rye

Imagine everything a person can go through in their early adulthood: surviving heart-breaking relationships, dropping out of university without a clear direction, and struggling to make it in a field as competitive as publishing. Salinger was that person before 1942 — before he was drafted into the Second World War. 

Asking why The Catcher in the Rye was never made into a movie is a question about what a writer sees in his own work. How much of his soul lies in between those lines? The pages did not simply represent the story written, but rather the turmoil and the resilience of the author. It represented who Salinger was… 

This is the story of why The Catcher in the Rye, one of the most infamous literary works, was never adapted into a movie. 

JD Salinger began writing The Catch in the Rye in 1940, or at least, that was when he first spoke about it. In his early 20s, Salinger was an aspiring writer. Having completed a writing course with American writer, Whit Burnett, he had a lot of momentum, as many young writers do. Salinger wanted to become financially stable and maybe even famous.

In those early years, he even told Burnett that he was eager to sell the film rights to his work so he could ensure that stability. Dating Oona O’Neill, daughter of playwright Eugene O’Neill, appeared to be a move in the right direction. He was 22 when he met her and she was 16. A year later they were officially dating and he joined her at the pinnacle of the social ladder in New York City, attending some of the most elite parties in the country. 

Salinger was uncomfortable at these gatherings. He disliked the company — those pretentious socialites with their entitlement and their faux humility — those people were phonies.

Yet, he had a complicated relationship with Oona O’Neill. He would be hot and then cold. At times, he would show affection and then in a blink he would be stand-offish. This was grounds for O’Neill to find love elsewhere. And with a history of being neglected by her work-focused father, Eugene, she found the attention from a much older man, Charlie Chaplin. The superstar film actor was 54 when he married 18-year-old Oona O’Neill. 

Jilted and heart-broken, Salinger sent her letters after she wedded a man 36 years her elder, criticizing her. He was hurt, and the pain lingered. 

The 1940s was an intense time for Salinger as he began to navigate the world as a published writer. Each publication gave him a little bit of hope — although they came few and far in between — but even with the successes nothing elevated him to the level he wanted to be. 

Then Pearl Harbour, the day that will live in infamy. 

Salinger was drafted and sent off to war where he literally went through hell and back. With his proficiency in multiple languages (French and Italian), he served as an interrogator. Yet he never stopped being a writer during those dangerous times. Members of his counter-intelligence team could still recall Salinger writing, even once when they were at risk of enemy fire. Witnessing the death of many friends and the horrors of the holocaust aftermath, Salinger was hospitalized for post-traumatic stress after the war ended.  

Upon returning to America from World War 2 in 1946, he brought with him back a wife,  Sylvia Welter — a former Nazi Party member — and his writing, a work in progress. His marriage didn’t last, but the novel did. Holden Caulfield remained his closest companion. 

In 1946, Salinger sought help from his old instructor, Whit Burnett, in an effort to get a collection of short stories published. The collection like many of Salinger’s attempts amounted to nothing. And in that, Salinger disengaged with Burnett — as he now had a tendency to do with the people in his life. 

Life ebbed and flowed for Salinger, and in 1948, his short story entitled Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut was published in The New Yorker. Movie producer, Samuel Goldwyn purchased the film rights to the story, promising Salinger the career advancement that he had been yearning. On January 21, 1950, the movie — which was retitled My Foolish Heart, starring Susan Hayward and Dana Andrews was released to the American audience. 

Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut was a dialogue-heavy story, and with that being the case had to be rewritten significantly for the film. In hindsight, Salinger would have wanted it to be a stage production, but the allure of the silver screens was too great. My Foolish Heart was very poorly received to the shock of Salinger, who had uncharacteristically relinquished all controls to Samuel Goldwyn when the producer bought the rights. 

According to the critics, the movie was melodramatic and full of the typical soap-opera cliches. This gave Salinger, a writer already lacking confidence, another significant blow, leaving a bruise that would not fade. 

The Catcher in the Rye was published by Little, Brown and Company on July 16, 1951. It received its fair share of positive reviews but would end up being one of the most influential novels of its generation for negative reasons. While many critics enjoyed the book, they found that the character of Holden Caulfield himself was immoral. This didn’t stop The Catcher in the Rye’s success, within the first 2 months of publication the novel was reprinted 8 times and would end up spending 30 weeks on the New York Times Bestsellers list.

By the late 1950s, the story of Holden Caulfield represented a group of brooding adolescence, which was coined The Catcher Cult. A rise against the novel began to form as those who upheld Christian morals found the 277-page novel to be a threat. The words “goddamn” appeared 237 times, “bastard” 58 and “Chrissake” 31 times. This was enough to get the book condemned in many high schools and libraries across America. By 1961, The Catcher in the Rye was the most censored book of its time and will continue to be one of the most challenged books for decades to come. Nevertheless, the novel sold over 65 million copies and rocketed Salinger into the limelight. 

Salinger hated the limelight. 

In as early as 1953, Salinger stopped interacting with the public and by 1965, he stopped publishing his works — even though, he continued to write regularly, hiding away from his family to do so. Why did Salinger stop publishing? It was the same reason he became reclusive. Publishing was an invasion of his privacy. He loved writing and continued to do so, but with the success of The Catcher In the Rye, he no longer needed people to read his fresh material: the 15 potentially completed manuscripts in his bunker in New Hampshire. 

During this period, Salinger was solicited by many from the film industry who wanted to adapt The Catcher in the Rye and he would turn them all down. He had many reasons for doing so, but one that stood out was that he felt he was the only person that could have played Holden Caulfield honestly, and perhaps with Margret O’Brien as his co-star. That would be most ideal for Salinger. After seeing what someone could do to his work — as he had seen in My Foolish Heart — he was not ready to trust anyone. 

In 1957, Salinger answered a letter asking about the potential for adaptation. He responded with “The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade “scenes”—only a fool would deny that—but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a word, his thoughts. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique. True, if the separation is forcibly made, there is enough material left over for something called an Exciting (or maybe just Interesting) Evening in the Theater. But I find that idea if not odious, at least odious enough to keep me from selling the rights…. And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biased opinion, is essentially unactable.”

Unactable — not even for The King of Comedy, Jerry Lewis, who tried for many years to acquire the rights to play Holden Caulfield. Salinger never even humored him. 

The list of elite filmmakers continued to knock on Salinger’s door as the years passed.

In 1961, Elia Kazan famous for On the Waterfront and A Streetcar Named Desire wanted to produce a Broadway version of The Catcher In the Rye. 

Billy Wilder of Double Indemnity made many attempts to communicate with Salinger, but it only ended up making the author annoyed and angry. 

Steven Spielberg, Harvey Weinstein, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tobey Maguire, Ethan Hawke, and John Cusack, who famously said that he regretted turning 21 because he was now officially too old to play Holden Caulfield, were not alone. Many generations of actors and filmmakers came and went — none of them added Holden Caulfield or The Catcher in the Rye to their credits.  

Acquiring the film right is the first step in adapting a novel to a movie; without it, there is no moving forward. No amount of money was going to sway Salinger, convincing him to relinquish the protection of his most precious work. 

On December 8, 1980, John Lennon was shot and killed outside of his apartment The Dakota by what police deemed, “a local crackpot,” Mark David Chapman. On Chapman’s body was a copy of The Catcher In the Rye. The killer continued to endorse the book during his arrest and trial. 

In 1981, after an attempt to assassinate Ronald Reagan, the authorities found The Catcher in the Rye in the culprit, John Hinckley Jr’s apartment. In 1989, after actress Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered by Robert John Bardo, the novel was found on him when arrested. Perhaps it was all circumstantial and merely a correlation, but The Catcher in the Rye was deemed a book with unholy powers. 

JD Salinger hid from all of this, as his novel continued to be both read and criticized almost four decades after its publication. To this day, The Catcher in the Rye holds a mystique. What power does it have over the readers, compelling them to do something so extreme? I believe if the novel was adapted into a movie, the power of the text would have been dampened. It would have been unlikely that these murderers would have been arrested with a DVD starring Marlon Brando or Jack Nicholson. Salinger knew what a poor adaptation could do to literature… 

In 2009, a Swedish writer by the pseudonym of John David California published a book called 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which chronicles Holden Caulfield’s life as a 76-year-old man. When Salinger caught a whiff of it, he sent his lawyer to sue California, real name: Fredrik Colting. 60 Year Later was banned in America. 

Even near the end, Salinger did not want his work to be tainted and defended it until his last breath which came on January 27, 2010. JD Salinger died at his home in Cornish, New Hampshire. He was 91 years old. It was then that Hollywood wondered how long they will need to wait now until The Catcher in the Rye will be released in theatres. 

In 1957, Salinger wrote a letter, toying with the idea of giving the unsold film rights to his family as an insurance policy. They could sell it if they were financially desperate. He accepted that he would be dead and cannot see the results anyways. But that letter was written long, long ago. He had since separated with his second wife, Claire Douglas. And his daughter, Margret had written a memoir with a not-so-flattering portrayal of her father. Understanding how Salinger tended to respond to slights, it’s unlikely that the rights would be in their hands at the time of his death.  

In 1976, the copyright act changed, and it allowed The Catcher in the Rye to be renewed in 1979, extending its terms by 28 years from its original publishing in 1951. There had been two more extensions in the succeeding decades and 67 years have been added on top of the initial 28 year extension. Without getting into too much copyright detail, The Catcher in the Rye will enter public domain in 2046 — 95 years after the story was published. 

2046. If you are eager to see The Catcher in the Rye movie that will be how long you will have to wait. However, many have claimed that a Catcher in the Rye-esque movie had already been made by director Burr Steers called Igby Goes Down in 2002, starring Kieran Culkin, Claire Danes and Jeff Goldblum. The movie follows a rebellious young boy who recently flunked out of prep school attempting to deal with all the relationships and circumstances required of him as he grows up. 

Steers acknowledged the similarities but said that Igby Goes Down was inspired by his own experiences living in New York as a child. He had initially wanted to write a novel, but the project became a script and then a movie. 

In 2019, Salinger’s estate announced that they are planning to release some of the late author’s unpublished works and in addition, finally bringing his available works to the digital form. Salinger had been against ebooks and audiobooks, but in an interview with the New York Times, JD Salinger’s son, Matt Salinger said, “He wouldn’t want people to not be able to read his stuff.” 

With this sudden change in the tide, perhaps the movie may come sooner. 

Would you go see The Catcher in the Rye when it comes out in theatres? Who should play Holden Caulfield? Let me know in the comments below. 

If you enjoyed this article, please consider signing up for my mailing list. You won’t receive emails from me often, but when you do, it’ll include only work that I’m most proud of.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s