Today marks the release of Salinger, a documentary (which A.O. Scott says doesn’t qualify as such) about the author I am contractually obligated to describe as “famously reclusive.” It, and the massive new biography of the same name, represent just the sort of invasion of privacy he’d deplore—but Salinger equally hated the idea of any adaptation of his fiction to the screen. Even without the rights to those beloved stories, however, filmmakers have found ways to inject his signature blend of sentimentality, idle wealth and acid wit into their movies.
Salinger had a way of making his stakes seem simultaneously sky-high and intimately scaled-down. In “For Esmé—with Love and Squalor,” he presents a tale of one girl’s loneliness alongside a critique of American postwar optimism. Likewise, Whit Stillman’s tale of Manhattan at the turn of a prosperous decade, featuring the bluebloods descended from Salinger’s, straddles the subjects of class, morality and tradition, lampooning the rich but not without pity, and managing a believable story of young courtship besides.
Igby Goes Down (2002)
Easily wins the award for “most reviewers name-checking The Catcher in the Rye” of any film in the last twenty years, and rightly so. Just check out the IMDb description and see if this doesn’t sound familiar: “A young man’s peculiar upbringing renders him unable to competently cope with the struggle of growing up.” As the troubled Igby, Kieran Culkin must contend with an icy mother in Susan Sarandon as well as ridicule and ostracizing from his peers and the specter of an insane father figure whose footsteps he fears to follow in. The reality, of course, is much worse.
Me and You and Everyone We Know (2005)
Miranda July’s directorial debut earns a spot on this list for two crucial reasons: there’s the nervous breakdown that sets the plot in motion (Salinger peppered such mental episodes throughout his fiction, often at the beginning or end of the action), and there are the supposedly naïve children whose innocence turns out to be a potent antidote for adult neurosis. That one character finds out she’s been carrying on an online affair with a child who seems to understand her more deeply than any man her own age makes us think old J.D. could have written a hell of a story about the Internet.
When Woody Allen set out to make a decidedly non-comedic film about a disintegrating WASP family, dimly lit with what appears to be only natural light, it had a lot of Ingmar Bergman to it. But with Allen a New Yorker, he couldn’t help but in some ways conjure Salinger’s iconic Glass family, with their suicide attempts and uneasy shifting of alliances. The author’s touch is especially evident in how the squabbling siblings can set their differences aside to savage an outsider brought into their midst. Allen even began to appear somewhat Salingereqsque himself during filming, increasingly unpredictable, testy and afraid that his movie would bomb (it was nominated for four Oscars).
The Squid and the Whale (2005)
Another bad New York family to be in, Noah Baumbach’s Berkmans are literary, smart, and utterly failing. Jeff Daniels, as the patriarch, is a novelist of squandered gifts, in a bitter rivalry with Laura Linney, his estranged wife, who is now publishing in the New Yorker (which ran most of Salinger’s short work after rejecting dozens of early manuscripts). But again, it’s the children who strike the most familiar chord, experiencing a pain so acute that grown-ups have forgotten what it’s like, lashing out in nonsensical, self-destructive ways, never quite sure what motivates their hopeless rage at the world.
This feature wouldn’t be complete without a nod to boarding school culture, or Wes Anderson, for that matter, any of whose films might have qualified. Anderson clearly feels a resonance in Salinger’s work, and his prim sense of mise-en-scène often harks back to some classical postwar setting—just try to imagine the hotel room in “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” without using Anderson-brand pale yellow. Anyway, Max Fischer is an intelligent loser who is flunking out of his prep academy and pines after a woman twice his age. It was likely only the addition of Bill Murray that staved off an intellectual property lawsuit.
Salinger Stats – The Catcher in the Rye
Copies of sold per year: 250,000
Sales to date: 65 million
Number of reprints: 8
Week on the New York Times Best Seller List: 30
Translations: The novel has been translated into almost all the word’s major languages