It’s been 64 years since The Catcher in the Rye was first released on July 16, 1951—and people have been trying to buy the production rights ever since. In fact, famously private author J.D. Salinger received offers from some of the best in the business. Elia Kazan wanted to adapt the book for Broadway back in 1961; Salinger said no.
Billy Wilder had his agent on the case for a little while. “One day, a young man came to the office of Leland Hayward, my agent, in New York, and said, ‘Please tell Mr. Leland Hayward to lay off. He’s very, very insensitive.’ And he walked out. That was the entire speech. I never saw him. That was J.D. Salinger and that was Catcher in the Rye,” Wilder said.
Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg have both lobbied for the movie rights; neither one of them made it far in the process, either.
But why? With such a classic character and vivid imagery, the movie would be an instant classic in the hands of the right director ... wouldn’t it? Salinger didn’t think so. He tried to explain his reasoning in a 1957 letter:
“...for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons — in a word, his thoughts. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique.”
He was also skeptical that any actor would be able to convincingly act as Caulfield.
“It would take someone with X to bring it off, and no very young man even if he has X quite knows what to do with it. And, I might add, I don’t think any director can tell him.”
But that’s not to say it couldn’t happen someday. In the same letter, Salinger, who passed away in 2010, suggested that a movie could be made after his death:
“It is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there's an ever-looming possibility that I won't die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won't have to see the results of the transaction."
If The Catcher in the Rye does eventually make it to the silver screen, one thing's for sure: Holden Caulfield would not approve.