J.D. Salinger, author of The Catcher in the Rye, and perhaps the country’s most famous recluse, died at home at age 91. His classic novel narrated by a 16-year-old named Holden Caulfield as he wanders around New York before he has to tell his parents he has been expelled from prep school is one of the most widely-read books of the 20th century, and enormously influential on readers and on writers. Caulfield is cynical and alienated. He calls everyone “phony,” one reason teenagers identify with him so strongly. But the other reason they connect to him is the way he yearns not to be cynical and alienated, the way he wants to be a part of something, to help someone. The title comes from a fantasy he has of protecting children.
Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.
Salinger would not allow his books to be made into movies, and I suspect that his literary executor will continue the prohibition. There is something quaint and appealing about the idea that Holden Caulfield will be for each of us our own individual and very personal vision.
But there are two movie connections worth mentioning. According to Turner Classic Movie’s Robert Osborne, Salinger got the idea for his most famous character’s name from a theater marquee advertising the movie “Dear Ruth” and its stars, William Holden and Joan Caulfield.
And one of Salinger’s works was filmed. A short called “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut” became a movie starring Susan Hayward called “My Foolish Heart.” The movie has so little connection to the story that it is easy to see why he decided not to have that happen again.
If I were going to get permission to make a movie based on Salinger’s writing, I would pick the short story, “For Esme, With Love and Squalor,” about a soldier’s encounter with a precocious young girl. Salinger loved to write about precious children.
Holden Caulfield said,
What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it.
Certainly, The Catcher in the Rye made many readers feel that way. But if they thought about what they read, they did not have to; the book itself and its main character were there to catch those of us who felt no one understood us or felt like us and let us know that someone did.