As the only literate Reject, it’s my duty to find the latest, the greatest and the untouched classics that would make great source material for film adaptations. I read so you don’t have to. This week, Print to Projector presents:
by J.D. Salinger
“I’ll exquisite day you, buddy, if you don’t get off that bag this minute. And I mean it,” Mr. McArdle said.
A man contemplates his marriage by the seashore. A woman mourns for her true love as she begins her new life. Two girls argue over money and one gets a chicken sandwich. The leader of a Comanche Club troop tells the story of a hero who meets an untimely demise. A young boy attempts to run away across the lake. An Army Sergeant remembers meeting a beautiful girl before heading out to combat. Two men have a conversation about one man’s missing wife. A man attempts to fake his way as an art instructor. A child prodigy discusses religion and existence on a ship.
It seemed only fitting to explore the desperate desire to see some of J.D. Salinger’s work on screen after the iconic writer’s death earlier this week. Salinger had a major effect on me growing up – as he did with most young people who discovered his books at the right age. I, like many other fans, have had no fewer than 5 copies of “Catcher in the Rye” in my possession, and I’ve either worn them down to dust or lent them out with no intention of getting them back. But as legendary as that book is, I can’t see it as a film. It’s just not cinematic enough and would need to be filmed mostly in voice over or spoiled completely by added side characters. We always have it in print, though.
Fortunately, some of Salinger’s work was incredibly cinematic. Most people might not see it right off the bat, but these nine short stories (collected in the cleverly-titled “Nine Stories”) are each masterpieces in their own right. Each is either dramatic or carries the sardonic humor that trademarks Salinger’s style.
- “A Perfect Day for Bananafish”
- “Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut”
- “Just Before the War with the Eskimos”
- “The Laughing Man”
- “Down at the Dinghy”
- “For Esme – With Love and Squalor”
- “Pretty Mouth and Green My Eyes”
- De Daumier-Smith’s Blue Period”
There’s a theme of childhood innocence lost in all of them, the symbolism runs a mile deep whether embedded in innuendo or shoved into a sandwich. My favorite part – and perhaps the most cinematic – is that all the stories shock in some way. Some shock with action, some shock with revelation, some shock with the kind of dialogue that leaves you hating the dark possibilities of mankind.
Instead of making this far too long-winded by covering each story, I’d like to look at what might be the best two on the screen. The first, “A Perfect Day for a Bananafish,” is a picturesque scene on a beach as Seymour Glass speaks with a young girl. The interlude is sweet, but sinister as he speaks about the animal’s ability to get into a forest of bananas coinciding with its inability to stop eating or to avoid getting stuck. The whole thing (as well as the innocence of the young girl) mirrors his new bride and her love of materialism. He, as we slowly get to know, has a deeper appreciation for life after returning from the war. It’s that appreciation that leaves him unhinged and leads directly to one of the most shocking endings of all of Salinger’s short stories.
The second is perhaps the leanest of all stories. The stripped-down narrative of “Just Before the War with the Eskimos” is probably no one’s favorite of his works, but it’s still riveting. What begins as a normal dispute between two girls (Ginnie is mad that she always pays for the cab ride back from tennis practice) becomes a strangely polite exchange between Ginnie and her tennis-partner Selena’s college-drop out older brother. Absolutely nothing happens. In fact, the flashiest action of the entire piece is a man handing a girl a sandwich. Still, it is an open window into an odd moment in a few young people’s lives that has deeper implications than what’s just on the page.
There’s honestly no problem with translating these stories to screen. Anthologies get made all the time.
The biggest problem is the fact that they will never, ever get made because Salinger didn’t want them to be. The man allowed for one of his stories (Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut) to be adapted, and the outcome was atrocious. Sure, My Foolish Heart, was nominated for an Oscar, but director Mark Robson so eviscerated the story, changing it in a cheap way, that Salinger washed his hands completely of Hollywood. Now with his passing, his estate is abiding by his wishes and keeping his work out of the hands of directors and writers who want to ruin it.
So it won’t ever get made. None of them will. Because one has already been made. But we can always dreamcast the hell out of it and stick with our wishful thinking.
It seems to me that with the play-like quality of many of the short stories, it would take a mind like David Mamet who straddles the playwright/screenwriter worlds in order to bring them to life without watering them down. Plus, Mamet has the added bonus of shocking a few people himself. Salinger was a mind unafraid to create cruel characters, and Mamet would probably shine in transporting them into a screenplay.
Each story is mostly dialog and the intensity that can come from two people on the verge of exploding. Since our new obsession Eric Rohmer is no longer with us, the only modern director I know of that can maintain visual interest during lengthy dialog sections is Ramin Bahrani - the director of Man Push Cart and Goodbye Solo.
You thought I might say QT, but there’s no way I would ever dream of seeing that guy stomp all over the tight, carefully crafted relationships built by Salinger. Unless the adaptation included the characters hiding machine guns in their nice New York apartments.
The other option is to do it truly as an anthology with nine different directors. And, in that case, why not just get the same directors from Paris, je t’aime, Tokyo!, and New York, I Love You?
I don’t have any specific casting notes, but the great thing about adapting these stories is that you could get two dozen of the best young talent in the business. Portman, Gordon-Levitt, Blunt. Pretty much anyone with strong acting abilities that ranges from 17-32 years old. Known names, fresh talent. It would be a damned display of acting prowess.
Who Owns It
The Salinger Estate, and they’re never giving it up.
The odds of this being made into a movie are slim to none. That’s both sad and a relief. Perhaps it really shouldn’t be put onto the big screen, perhaps it should stay in ink and paper, but part of me really wishes that it could be celebrated by the shrewdest, strongest writing and directing talent in the business. It would be a fitting tribute to the man who has had such an impact on so many lives through his writing.
Or it could end up being another My Foolish Heart.