A Phoney by Another Name

An interesting article at Salon about the debate over whether or not to adapt Catcher in the Rye into a movie touches on something I’ve been thinking on for a while, namely, movie adaptations of books. For the record, I’m, indifferent to the debate about Catcher in the Rye. I’m one of maybe two people on the planet who thinks that book is highly overrated.[1]

Whether or not Salinger ever wanted it adapted, he’s dead and its pretty much just a debate of not if but when. And since Hollywood doesn’t make original movies anymore,[2] When will very likely be soon and repeatedly. But why? When did having a book or comic or song or board game made into a movie become the cultural standard on which a work’s merit must be judged? Whcih isn’t to say that some adaptations aren’t great but not every story works as a movie.

I’m just finishing up reading The Three Musketeers and the second most striking thing about the book[3] is how it highlights just how all pale imitations of the source material all the film adaptations are. More than that, they never could be anything but second rate retellings of the story. It’s too big, too wide and to much to put in a single movie. A Television miniseries might do it justice, if it were on HBO or showtime. No timid Network would ever touch a story where the main characters were a bunch of wine-drunk sword fighters, manipulating mistresses for their living and picking fights with the guard of the Cardinal of France just for fun. The values-dissonance alone would drive the dimwitted TV audience of today into fits.

Catcher in the Rye would never work as a movie for a whole host of other reasons, mainly having to do with the fact that most of the book is just a running monologue of the main character’s rambling self loathing and whining. Yeah, I’m sure that will do well. Maybe they can run it against Avatar 2.

The point is, Catcher and Musketeers and a hundred other novels don’t need to be movies.[4] They work just fine as written. And if Hollywood started making real movies again and not just 3 hour long commercials for T-shirts and pop tarts, with nothing but gimmicks to prop up their lousy craftsmanship, maybe Salinger and other writers skeptical of what sort of a mockery would be made of their work wouldn’t be so fearful and reluctant to provide their talent to the dream factory.

1. And besides, its influence on writing and film making is, for better or worse, already apparent, so the only reason to adapt it now is to cash in on Baby Boomer/Gen X nostalgia.

2. They’re making a movie out of Battleship. The board game. With the little pegs and plastic ships, where you bore each other for an hour calling out grid coordinates. Yes, that one. It’s bad enough that Hollywood has grown so risk adverse that they’re rebooting and remaking films that aren’t even old, but that they’d rather make a movie out of a board game than greenlight something original, just so they can have something familiar to tie into.

3. The most striking thing about the book is just how great it is. Here’s a sprawling adventure story full of swearing, fighting, lust, intrigue, sex, scandal, and gallantry. what’s not to love? Half the book is made up of the various ways D’artangion and the Musketeers get money from their mistresses and then piss it away on wine, gambling and doctor’s bills, all while swearing that they aspire to greater things. Athos keeps saying how he’s going to quit the Musketeers and join an abbey. He’s like all those Americans who keep threatening to move to Canada, only he’s also a bad ass poet and sword fighter.

4. Mine aren’t among them. Never let it be said I was too proud not to cash in. Call me Hollywood. The film rights can be yours.