In the last century of film, a countless number of great literary works have been adapted for the silver screen. Some with far greater success than others. Here is a short list of a few texts ripe for adaptation at the moment.
The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger
Hollywood has drooled for decades over the opportunity to bring Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye to the big screen. Not only is it one of the best selling books in the history of print, but Holden Caulfield remains one of the most iconic characters of modern literature. According to Entertainment Weekly, Salinger turned down requests during his life from Samuel Goldwyn, Billy Wilder, Elia Kazan, and Steven Spielberg to adapt his work; but did allude in a 1957 rejection letter to a Mr. Herbert that he “toy[s] 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.”
Even if the book were optioned in the wake of Salinger’s recent passing, bringing a novel dominated by the stream of consciousness and internal musings of an alienated teenager is no simple task for a screenwriter. Recently, Christopher Hampton did a superb job adapting another ‘novelistic novel’, Atonement. But even if a trite, tedious, and saccharine adaptation were avoided; there is the difficulty of finding a teen actor able to tackle the dark protagonist’s role. Jerry Lewis, Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio have all made attempts to secure the role through the years, and John Cusack lamented in an interview that his greatest regret about turning twenty-one was that he had become too old to play Holden Caulfield. “If there’s one thing I hate,” says Holden Caulfield on the second page of The Catcher in the Rye, “it’s the movies. Don’t even mention them to me.” Any adaptation of Salinger’s most enduring classic will be heavily scrutinized, but perhaps the toughest critic may be the narrator himself.
The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier
The catastrophic earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010, prompted many nations and millions of individuals to pledge funds and humanitarian aid to the devastated island nation. In the weeks that followed, the delays in the distribution of aid, complicated by both the totality of the devastation and the grossly insufficient infrastructure prior to the quake, led to outbreaks of violence, looting and needless death. The news media struggled to cover the story of a country unknown to many and virtually ignored by the world. But in their defense, Haiti lacks a simple narrative.
Perhaps no book ever written covers the complex history, the horrors of colonialism, the tragedy and failings of the independence movement that followed, the diversity of the people, culture and religion of Haiti more than Carpentier’s The Kingdom of This World (El Reino de Este Mundo). And few books ever written capture the perseverance of the human spirit in the face of insurmountable affliction. It is one of the mysteries of the literary world how Carpentier was never awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. His ability to distill the essence of a culture and place as complex as Haiti into a novel little more than 100 pages is a testament to his faculties.
According to reports in the Associated Press, Sean Penn met with Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to discuss filming another Carpentier text, The Lost Steps, set along Venezuela’s Orinoco River. Certainly a film adaptation of The Kingdom of This World would need a less ideological but equally fearless director and screenwriter; unafraid to lay waste to the numerous political leaders, governments, philosophies, and popular ideologies criticized in The Kingdom of This World. To Carpentier, the only hero was the human spirit struggling to be better than its very nature. It is possible to see Roland Joffé return to the greatness of his early films with this type of material.
Warlock by Jim Harrison
Many of Harrison’s deeply faulted but surprisingly endearing characters attracted the attention of Hollywood executives throughout the 1990s. However with the possible exception of Legends of the Fall, most of the film adaptations were significantly inferior to their literary origins (e.g. Wolf, Dalva, Revenge, Carried Away). The comedic and reflective farce Warlock provides Hollywood with its best opportunity for redemption.
Half detective novel spoof, half cathartic exploration of a mid-life crisis, Warlock offers up an irresistibly likeable anti-hero, both riotously buffoonish and surprisingly introspective. Complete with comic hallucinations, a sober Midwestern setting, and explorations of the seedy, hard-boiled underbelly of Key West it is easy to envision the adaptation of this novel involving the Coen brothers in one way or another. Few could capture the dark comedy, setting, and idiosyncrasies of the main character as adroitly as they could.
Keith Staskiewicz, Is a ‘Catcher in the Rye’ Movie Possible?, Entertainment Weekly
Letters of Note
Dana Stevens, Goddam Hollywood Phonies, Slate.com
J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, Little, Brown and Company, pg. 2
Rachel Jones, Chavez: Sean Penn May Make Film in Venezuela, Associated Press