The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Odds of Hollywood finally making a 'Catcher in the Rye' movie: Less than zero

January 29, 2010 | 12:47 pm

Hollywood never had a chance to make a movie out of J.D. Salinger's delightful "The Catcher in the Rye," though it wasn't for lack of trying. Over the years, everyone gave it a shot -- Sam Goldwyn, Billy Wilder, even Steven Spielberg. Let's face it. It ain't gonna happen now, even though Entertainment Weekly has a post up floating the slightly preposterous theory that things could change with Salinger's death, since the reclusive author once wrote a letter to a fan in 1957 saying that he might leave the movie rights to his wife and daughter as a way of helping them make ends meet.

Catcher_in_the_rye_pulp_2 Of course, by the time Salinger died, he'd long ago separated from his wife, while his daughter had written a nasty memoir about dear old dad, making it highly unlikely that any movie rights would have remained in their possession.

Anyway, it's hard to imagine that if Salinger had seen any youth-culture movies over the past 20 years that he would've felt any more optimistic about a good Hollywood outcome for his beloved masterpiece. In fact, it's hard to imagine a modern-day filmmaker (OK, excepting Wes Anderson, who acts like he for all intents and  purposes grew up in a Salinger story) who has the right sensibility for capturing the distinctively disaffected tone of "Catcher in the Rye."

But Salinger's death reminded me of Hollywood's cheekiest attempt to win over the old master. Way, way back in 1982, Larry Mark -- now a successful film producer who was co-producer of last year's Oscars -- was a brash young production executive at Paramount Pictures. The studio wanted to do a film in a prep school setting, so Mark, who'd gone to Hotchkiss, was given the job of overseeing the project. As he told me last year during Oscar season, after reading several lackluster scripts, Mark realized that if the studio were going to all that trouble to make a prep school movie, why not go after the holy grail of preppy literary properties.  

Mark had just seen a photo of Salinger snapped outside his local post office, so Mark identified what he believed to be the exact location and sent Salinger a pitch letter. There's no evidence that Salinger ever read it -- he certainly didn't reply -- but it's a classic of its kind. On official Paramount stationery, Mark tells Salinger that the studio has been trying to develop a prep school project, saying: "We have managed to come up with several scripts -- all of them awful. You see, there's no way to do such a project -- unless it happens to be 'Catcher in the Rye.' "

Mark acknowledges Salinger's concerns about being raped and pillaged by Hollywood, shrewdly adding that "I share many of these feelings." So he offers Salinger the ability to oversee each step of the way from novel to film, concluding with this wonderful flourish: "Please give a kid a break -- and advise me how to go about changing your mind." I still have a copy of the letter on my wall, as a reminder of what deep roots chutzpah has in the showbiz family tree. I often fantasized that Salinger kept his copy as well, as a reminder that some books are best left on the shelf, safely nestled in our individual imaginations, free from any Hollywood interpretation.