"If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me." So said one of literature's most famous protagonists, Holden Caulfield, in one of the most famously unadapted novels of the 20th century, The Catcher in the Rye. A work sought after by producers, directors and actors, including Samuel Goldwyn, Jack Nicholson, Leonardo Di Caprio and Jerry Lewis, all intent on making their statement via its famously reclusive author, it's likely no version of the novel will ever find its way to the big screen.
The author is, of course, J.D. Salinger, who passed away Wednesday at the age of 91, a man who held his all of his work, The Catcher in the Rye, Franny and Zooey and his short stories (save for "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut," which was made into a 1949 movie entitled My Foolish Heart, and one that reportedly caused great consternation and unhappiness with Salinger) under firm anti-Hollywood lock and key.
And yet, Salinger's Garbo-like elusiveness and impossible adaptations have never stopped legions of filmmakers from being influenced by both the work and the man. From direct inspiration of story, character and theme, to quick but telling references, to compelling (or syrupy) speeches, to conspiracy theories, to women held under torturous Holden-saving-Phoebe delusions, Salinger managed to seep into cinema, regardless of his disdain for a business Mr. Caulfield would describe as lousy. Here are six of my favorite.
The Collector (1965)
William Wyler's masterful adaption of John Fowles' brilliant novel is a creepy, deeply sad, weirdly sensitive look at a young sociopathic stalker and the object of his obsessive amour: the woman he's kidnapped and trapped in his cellar. The stalker, Freddie (wonderfully realized by Terence Stamp), and his prey, the lovely, delicate yet touchingly strong young woman (Samantha Eggar), are stuck together (well, she's stuck with him) and, in one key scene, attempt to understand each other via The Catcher in the Rye. Spying her copy, he asks her if the book is any good and she excitedly answers that indeed it is. She's, read it three times, in fact. And in an act of survival, she encourages him to read what she considers a beautiful book, hoping he might relate to it and perhaps find it in his heart to humanize her. But the novel only makes him angry, and he states contemptuously, "I didn't see much point in it really. I don't believe it for one thing, that boy. Going to a posh school and his parents having money. He's got no real problems, in my opinion. So what right does he have to behave the way he does?" Further, he believes her ringing endorsement translates to his own pathetic state in life ("like me, I don't fit in anywhere"), revealing that he got a lot more out of the book than he understands. It's a heartbreaking moment, and a unique twist. Just when you think you might feel sorry for the troubled young man, you feel even worse for the poor woman who is trying valiantly to endure and understand his sociopathic behavior. It's a powerful scene that will never leave me.
Six Degrees of Separation (1993)
An often underlooked 1993 film adaptation of the John Guare play of the same title, and one of Will Smith's greatest roles (perhaps his greatest role, period), Six Degrees of Separation contains only one mention of The Catcher in the Rye, but it's a potent one. J.D. Salinger's legendary novel figures pivotally when Smith's Paul, a young man hoodwinking an upscale New York couple (played by Stockard Channing and Donald Sutherland), delivers an insightful though disturbing speech (supposedly his Harvard thesis) about assassins and their connection to Holden Caulfield. Underlining the disturbance and reveal that will come later in the story (the con man has convinced the couple he's the son of Sidney Poitier and a Harvard grad), he famously discusses the Rye killer connection with Mark David Chapman, who shot John Lennon, and John Hinckley, who shot Ronald Reagan. Both claimed Salinger's novel as their defense, and that reading it was key to understanding their acts. Paul eloquently but creepily states: "I read this book to find out why this touching, beautiful, sensitive story published in July 1951 had turned into this manifesto of hate ... on Page 22 my hair stood up. Remember Holden Caulfield -- the definitive sensitive youth -- wearing his red hunter's cap? 'A deer hunter hat?' Like hell it is. I sort of closed one eye like I was taking aim at it. This is a people-shooting hat. I shoot people in this hat."
The Good Girl (2002)
Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl (scripted by Mike White) is a fascinating, disturbingly hilarious and intensely poignant picture of young alienation because it actively toys with the incredible influence of The Catcher in the Rye and how possibly annoying and self deluding that influence can be. Addressing just how deeply young people, particularly young men, connect to Holden Caulfield, the movie features a protagonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) who so relates to the novel that he changes his name to Holden. When he falls in love with a married woman (Jennifer Aniston), he turns her normally monotonous, unhappy world upside down with a seemingly sensitive yet cynical look at life, causing her to question her own existence, and then, in turn, question her new secret boyfriend. Is he (and this is an ironic blasphemy to his namesake) a phony? Directly, at times, harshly, and yet not without compassion (Arteta never simply makes fun of his characters), The Good Girl looks at the cult of Catcher as something both comically self-absorbed and completely understandable. Gyllenhaal's Holden becomes almost a parody of alienated youth, but through twists in his "quirky" character he becomes something much darker and more destructive than one would expect. His identification to Caulfield actually makes her feel lonelier -- and in the end even more adrift.
The Shining (1980)
It's a small moment, but a telling one, that Wendy (played by a tragically eager-to-please Shelley Duvall) is reading The Catcher in the Rye in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining. Nothing is said of it, but since she lives with a writer (played by Jack Nicholson) who will become increasingly isolated, alienated and so insane that he will not only attempt to kill her and their son, but also (horrors) lose his ability to write. In an extremely dark version of the Salinger legend, Jack can only write for himself and maddeningly repeats pages and pages of one sentence: "All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy." In an interesting side note, Kubrick became something of a recluse himself, though still productive until his dying breath. And with Lolita, though much of this ties into the era of the picture and the parlance of youth, or rather, the parlance of Sue Lyon's Lolita, the nymphet occasionally speaks like Holden Caulfield: "Oh come on. She's the only friend I've got in this stinkin' world." Kind of like Wendy and Scatman Crothers' Dick Hallorann.
Taxi Driver (1976)
Though not one mention of The Catcher in the Rye is uttered in Martin Scorsese's masterpiece (written by Paul Schrader in an inspired fever), the iconic character of Travis Bickle (so memorably played by Robert De Niro) is viewed by many as the incarnation of the future Holden Caulfield, and one so eerily potent that it was (by no fault of the filmmakers) darkly influential for a future attempted assassination on a president. An intensely troubled man who has nearly lost his mind to obsessive thoughts (brilliantly heard in the picture's monologist voice over narration), Travis is far more humorless than Holden, but that's what the harsh reality of growing up in an alienating world (and his own type of insanity, though a relate-able insanity -- it's hard not to identify with Travis at times) has done to him. Wanting to, like Caulfield, protect the younger and more innocent from the world's exploitation (in Catcher it's Holden's young sister Phoebe; in Taxi Driver it's Jodie Foster's teenage prostitute, Iris), Travis views himself as a savoir and, in the picture's fascinating finale, actually becomes one, though a self-involved, murderous savior. As earlier alluded, the picture was a favorite of John Hinckley Jr., who was so obsessed with it that he famously stalked Foster and attempted to assassinate President Reagan in her honor. His favorite book was The Catcher in the Rye. "You call that bein' hip? What world you from?"
The Royal Tenenbaums (2001)
From his sensitive screw-ups of Bottle Rocket to his youth in revolt Max Fischer of Rushmore to the poignantly unhappy, yet beautifully eccentric Tenenbaum family of The Royal Tenenbaums, Wes Anderson might be the closest cinematic heir to J.D. Salinger, both aesthetically and thematically. Influenced by Salinger's Glass Family (seen in Salinger's stories and the novel Franny and Zooey), the Tenenbaums are a group of child prodigies who've become glamorously broken adults. Biding their time in a fairy tale New York, the family appears suspended by their own memories, and live in a city that comes to the viewers as a dream, or how we envisioned that particular metropolis as children. And Anderson makes no secret about his homage. It can't be a mistake that the name Tenenbaum so closely resembles that of Beatrice "Boo Boo" Glass' husband, Mr. Tannenbaum. And Gwyneth Paltrow's raccoon-eyed Margot Tenenbaum's mink coat has become about as iconic as Holden Caulfield's red hunter's cap. Some critics (I think they're wrong, but they continue saying this) even slap Anderson with the same kind of derision Salinger received after his triumph of Catcher in the Rye. Both have been called overly precious, overly privileged and overly adoring of characters living in a vacuum of nostalgia and sweetness, dislocated from reality. Well, yes, and no. In the case of yes, and especially regarding Tenenbaums, like Salinger, their dislocation, their family of pressed butterflies is part of the point. And that's part of the artists' inspired, delicate and funny tragedies. Salinger, who, again never wanted any of his fiction turned into motion pictures after that one disappointing early attempt, found a loving and suitable, though inadvertent protégé in Anderson. Anderson's nostalgia and inertia and style is the substance, and all of his movies leave one with a bittersweet pain. As Henry Allen wrote of Salinger in a recent remembrance, and something that could be said of Anderson as well, "Hemingway was a writer who made unhappiness beautiful. Salinger took it a step further -- with the same uncanny ability to evoke the world his characters move through, he made it a virtue."
Read more from my scenes of Salinger inspired cinema piece, which also discusses Igby Goes Down, Finding Forrester and Field of Dreams at MSN Movies.