J.D. Salinger and the Movies

“I believe everything and I believe nothing.” – Inspector Clouseau

Since J.D. Salinger’s death many film critics like Dana Stevens have enjoyed quoting from Salinger’s seminal work The Catcher in the Rye where the fictional character of Holden Caulfield proclaims “If there’s one thing I hate, it’s the movies.” The quote has become a jumping-off point for film critics who have used the line to help explain why Salinger didn’t want Catcher in the Rye turned into a film, but they’re sadly mistaken when they also assume that the author of Catcher in the Rye didn’t like movies.

In Joyce Maynard’s memoir At Home in the World she discusses her lengthy relationship with J.D. Salinger and makes it clear that movies played a rather large part in the author’s life. In the book (originally published in 1998) Maynard explains that Salinger loved watching movies and talking about them in great detail. He seemed to enjoy debating a film’s merits and faults. In one of the books most fascinating passages Maynard details Salinger’s viewing habits.

“Although we were talking regularly on the phone now, the letters continue. He writes about the movies he loves best – he loves movies, not films – and how, some years back, he got himself a 16mm projector so he could watch old prints of movies he loves, right there in the living room with his children: The Thirty-Nine Steps, The Thin Man, The Lady Vanishes, Lost Horizon. As much contempt as Jerry conveys about nearly everything being produced in the current world of film, theater, art and literature, he holds an attitude of tenderness and occasional reverence for what came out of the thirties – the years when he was close to the age that I am now. With the exception of a handful of movies – From Here to Eternity, The Pink Panther – his favorite movies were made long before I was born.”
– Joyce Maynard on J.D. Salinger in “At Home in the World: A Memoir”

This brief passage indicates that Salinger had more than a passing interest in the movies. He obviously enjoyed writing about them and watching them enough to purchase a 16mm projector. Salinger seemed to like Hitchcock’s early work and the writer even found room in his heart for one of my favorite comedies, The Pink Panther (1963). Simply put, Salinger liked the movies but he had particular tastes and preferred older films.

Film critics who continue to parrot the idea that J.D. Salinger didn’t like movies are doing Salinger and their readers a great disservice. If you don’t know a thing about the author’s movie viewing habits you shouldn’t write about them. Period. Besides Dana Stevens assuming that Salinger must have hated the movies in the same way she thinks his fictional character did, I’ve come across this same ridiculous assumption repeated by people like Ron Reed of Filmwell who feels that “J.D. Salinger doesn’t appear to have been much of a movie fan.” and Dave at MovieSet who proclaims that he’s got “… a dossier on stuff I know about Jerome David Salinger and his literary work: 1) Salinger hates movies.” and then there’s Michael Dance at MovieCultist who has written a piece simply titled “J.D. Salinger: The Man Who Hated Movies.”

Willful ignorance shouldn’t become a staple of film criticism. Do a little research before you write or stick to the old adage, “Write what you know.”

9 thoughts on “J.D. Salinger and the Movies

  1. Not that I’ve ever said it publicly, but I always assumed that J.D. Salinger hated everything. Thanks for making me like him a little more with this information!

  2. If I can defend myself for a second: I think I was pretty clear in my article that I was referring to Salinger’s contempt for the Hollywood system he had to associate with: the man who hated “the movies,” so to speak. But you’re right, my title was careless. That’s a very cool excerpt you found.

  3. Whitney – You’re welcome.

    Michael – I appreciate that you took the time to comment. There’s been a flood of careless writing on the web attempting to link Holden Caulfield’s quote with the writer himself and it’s annoyed me to no end. I really wish more writers would consider doing a little research about the topics they want to write about or stick to writing about what they know. I didn’t casually stumble on the book excerpt by chance. I read Maynard’s memoirs when they were published in the ’90s because I was interested in Salinger. I suspect that most of the film critics who are writing about Salinger right now have never bothered to read a biography about the man and they’re just parroting what they’ve read online. I suppose I could have been more selective with my words (I did a little editing) but I’ve seen this type of thing happen again and again. I guess my patience suddenly wore out.

  4. Great points, Kimberly (as a working film critic, I especially appreciated this… but I’m sure — well, I know — I’m as guilty as occassional carelessness in fact-checking as anyone. Thanks for reminding us the facts ARE important.

  5. I only read excerpts from Maynard’s book in the papers, and of course those tended to be the salacious ones. This quote was lovely, and of course the cinema of the 1930s means a great deal to me too. It is also touching to think that Salinger retained such affection for the movies of his youth; it humanizes this mysterious man. “He had particular tastes and he preferred older films”–oh how that gladdens my heart. Well, by all accounts Salinger loathed the version made of Uncle Wiggly with a white-hot passion so I always wondered if that informed Holden’s sideswipe a little bit. But I certainly agree with the idea that a lot of cultural writing would benefit from the same kind of fact-checking that is required for other journalism. When I am researching blog posts I have often encountered misconceptions that have been repeated so often they’re widely accepted and repeated by people who are otherwise careful writers.

  6. Thanks again for sharing your thoughts, everyone!

    Siren – Isn’t it a great antidote? And I couldn’t agree with you more about fact-checking! There’s a lot of misconceptions and flat out untruths that have found themselves repeated so often in the realm of film criticism that no one bother’s to trace their source anymore. It really bugs me and the lack of fact-checking seems to be turning into a regular habit for a lot of film bloggers.

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