Who Killed Salinger Movies?
By John Truby
We know J.D. Salinger's views on movies and writing for Hollywood by reading the second page of The Catcher in the Rye. Speaking of his brother, D.B., the hero, Holden Caulfield, says "Now he's out in Hollywood, D.B., being a prostitute. If there's one thing I hate, it's the movies. Don't even mention them to me."
Where did this come from?
Most people don't know that one of Salinger's short stories was made into a movie. "Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut" became "My Foolish Heart," starring Susan Hayward. And Salinger hated it.
The result? No other Salinger fiction has ever been filmed, including the one book everyone would like to see, The Catcher in the Rye.
So who killed Salinger movies? Let's start with the usual suspects.
The screenwriters who adapted Uncle Wiggly would probably be the first people to investigate. Except that the screenwriters were Julius and Philip Epstein, two of the premier screenwriters in Hollywood history, authors of Casablanca and Mr. Skeffington.
My Foolish Heart is not a great movie. But it's not a bad movie either. So I don't think the screenwriters are responsible for killing Salinger movies.
A second suspect might be Salinger himself. There is no way this short story could be a movie without a huge addition of plot material, which would have made it a different story. And Salinger should have known that.
The average Hollywood movie has 50-70 scenes. Uncle Wiggly covers only a few hours in the main character's life and would produce only 3 or 4 scenes in a movie.
Here's the story:
Mary Jane comes over for drinks with her old college friend Eloise. Mary Jane meets Eloise's awkward daughter, Ramona, who has an imaginary friend named Jimmy. Eloise tells Mary Jane about a guy she dated during the war, named Walt, who always made her laugh. But he died when a stove blew up in his face. When Eloise finds that her daughter has made up another imaginary friend, she yells at the little girl. Then she breaks into tears and says to Mary Jane, "I was a nice girl, wasn't I?"
How do you make this slight story a movie without adding and changing a great deal?
The real culprit responsible for killing Salinger movies is not the screenwriters or Salinger. Rather the culprit is two fundamentally different strategies of storytelling: drama vs. melodrama.
By looking through this set of glasses, we can not only see deeply into how Salinger writes but also how professional writers work effectively in any medium.
Let's compare the way drama and melodrama handle plot, character, theme and dialogue and we'll see how Uncle Wiggly in Connecticut and My Foolish Heart execute these elements of writing in fundamentally different ways.
Let's begin with plot. Melodrama has big plot twists. And they are often imposed by the author who is trying to make these big twists happen, which means they aren't justified by the characters themselves.
Drama tends to have small plot twists. They come from the character and they emphasize not the events, but what the characters feel about the events.
Here is a plot summary of Uncle Wiggly:
Two friends from college have some drinks. Eloise remembers a guy she dated from the war who died. She disciplines her daughter and cries.
Here is a plot summary of My Foolish Heart:
Eloise and Mary Jane have drinks. Flashback to college. Eloise is embarrassed at a party and is saved by Walt, a knight in shining armor. She goes to his apartment where he tries but fails to seduce her. She is expelled from college when she is caught kissing him in her dorm elevator.
When Pearl Harbor is attacked, Eloise stays over at Walt's place the night before he has to ship out and she gets pregnant. She can't tell her father because he might die from a heart attack.
Walt is killed in a plane crash. Devastated, Eloise steals Mary Jane's boyfriend, Lew, and they get married.
Back in the present seven years later, Lew goes off with Mary Jane. But they let Eloise keep Ramona.
Notice the two different approaches to plot:
Plot in Salinger does not come from a sequence of big events, many of which are unbelievable. It comes from the contrast of what the characters say and what they do, caught in a single moment.
Plot is conveyed from the little signs that seep out even though the character is trying desperately to keep them hidden.
This technique is also true in longer Salinger, like The Catcher in the Rye. If you sum up the plot in The Catcher in the Rye what do you have: nothing. A teenage boy leaves school and walks around New York City for a few days.
Salinger refers to this fundamental opposition of storytelling strategies in the first paragraph of The Catcher in the Rye when he refers to David Copperfield.
David Copperfield is the classic coming-of-age story of the 19th century, and Dickens is the greatest exemplar of the grand melodramatic plot.
Here is the opening of The Catcher in the Rye:
"If you really want to hear about it, the first thing you'll probably want to know is where I was born, and what my lousy childhood was like, and how my parents were occupied and all before they had me, and all that David Copperfield kind of crap, but I don't feel like going into it, if you want to know the truth. In the first place that stuff bores me, and in the second place, my parents would have about two hemorrhages apiece if I told anything pretty personal about them."
CHARACTER AND EMOTION
In melodrama, characters are big and overly emotional. Nothing is hidden. In film melodrama, the actors play the emotion, right on the sleeve.
In drama, on the other hand, emotion is often hidden. Sadness or happiness must be earned by the characters' struggle in the story.
Uncle Wiggly takes place in the wealthy, upper middle class world of Connecticut. Characters have a happy façade masking deep pain underneath. The key point: this happy facade is also the character basis for the great sin in Salinger, being phony. Being phony is a code word in Salinger fiction for being an inauthentic person.
The main character in Uncle Wiggly, Eloise, is overly-enthusiastic. Her emotions at the beginning are fake or superficial. She drinks all afternoon, and connects with her friend, Mary Jane, based on small talk and booze.
Here's an exchange between Eloise and Mary Jane talking about a college friend:
"I remember exactly. She dyed (her hair) the night before she married that Frank Henke. You remember him at all?"
"Just sort of. Little ole private? Terribly unattractive."
"Unattractive. God! He looked like an unwashed Bela Lugosi."
Mary Jane says of another one of their classmates: "...she started to tell me how she almost got raped by a colored soldier. Right on the main floor of Lord and Taylor's she started to tell me..."
Notice the text is false happiness and fake intimacy, but the subtext - the real meaning - is one of two women living a life of pretty things and no purpose.
In My Foolish Heart, instead of happy façade, Eloise brings the subtext to the surface immediately:
"What'll you have to drink?"
"Look, kid, it's seven years since we've seen each other. If I remember we didn't part under the friendliest of circumstances. Frankly I'm embarrassed to see you. I think a drink would help a lot."
"Okay. Rye and soda."
"I was bowled over when I heard your voice on the phone this morning."
"I thought we'd have a talk."
"Does that mean you've forgiven me, Mary Jane?"
"I forgave you a long time ago, Eloise."
In Uncle Wiggly, we meet Ramona, Eloise's little girl, who lives in fantasy and is socially embarrassing to her mother. This is classic Salinger, the outsider who doesn't fit in. Sadness is under the surface, but it's implied.
Eloise says to Ramona, "Stand up, please...Tell Mary Jane how Jimmy looks."
"He has green eyes and black hair."
"No mommy and no daddy."
"I don't know," said Ramona, and began to scratch herself again.
Contrast that with how Eloise describes Ramona to Mary Jane in My Foolish Heart:
"She's an unhappy looking kid, isn't she. I wish I knew how to make her happy. I don't know. There's something in me that just won't let me."
"...Who does she look like, anyhow?"
"Lew. She looks like Lew..."
"But El, how could she?"
"How could she what?"
"You know. Look like Lew."
The above conversations also show the basic difference in how melodrama and drama handle dialogue. In melodrama, dialogue is direct, often "on the nose," meaning there is no subtext.
In drama, by contrast, dialogue rarely discusses the real problem. The real problem remains under the surface, and subtle hints pop up that indicate what is really at stake.
A final element of writing to consider is theme. Theme is the author's view of the proper way to live in the world. It is expressed through character, structure, and dialogue.
In Uncle Wiggly we get a strong sense of Salinger's theme from the phony characters and their clueless dialogue. Salinger advocates becoming authentic, being honest, creating a true connection with others instead of a connection based on money, status, power or looks.
The most dramatic moment when theme hits home with the audience is at the final self-revelation, one of the key steps in story structure. The self-revelation is the moment when the hero learns or fails to learn some great insight about herself and about how to live.
This moment is crucial in any fiction, but especially important in a short story, because everything leads to this moment.
In Uncle Wiggly, Eloise's final insight occurs at the very end of the story when she says, "You remember our freshman year, and I had that brown-and-yellow dress I bought in Boise, and Miriam Ball told me nobody wore those kind of dresses in New York, and I cried all night?" Eloise shook Mary Jane's arm. "I was a nice girl," she pleaded, "wasn't I?"
Notice what a small thing this is for Eloise to learn in her final self-revelation. She senses she has lost her decency and a sense of who she really is, but she has no real understanding of how or why.
And ironically this is what makes it tragic. What we see is a true and believable loss of potential and decline of an everyday woman. It is a small tragedy but it is earned and thus powerful.
In My Foolish Heart, Eloise comes out of her flashback and tells her husband and Mary Jane, "The important thing, Lew, is that I'm through hurting people. I'm through doing wrong. I'm paying for what I've done. Now I'm all alone. I don't want others to suffer too. I want you to have Ramona... I know she'll be happy with you and Mary Jane. If it weren't for me you two would have been married years ago. I'm sorry for all those years I took out of your lives."
In other words, it's too bad she lost the love of her life but she has repented for the bad person she has become.
Notice the huge flip here: a woman who has been selfish all this time suddenly realizes she's not going to do wrong anymore.
So the first problem with this self-revelation is that it does not come from the character. It's imposed by the authors because the audience wants this change to happen, which means that it's unearned, hollow, and phony. Since phony is the great sin in Salinger, this ending undoubtedly drove him nuts.
We are left with a simple moralistic lesson that has no real impact on the audience.
Notice it is also the exact opposite of the theme of Salinger's story, which is the need to become authentic. In Uncle Wiggly, Salinger expresses that through a woman who is incapable of becoming authentic. That's her great tragic flaw. So she is incapable of having that big learning moment at the end.
It's important not to learn the wrong lesson from this comparison. It's not that drama is good and melodrama is bad. They are two kinds of storytelling structures, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. A professional writer knows both these structures well enough to use each at the right time.
If you would like to learn more about these and hundreds of other storytelling techniques, take a look at my Great Screenwriting class and workshop and my Blockbuster story development software.
Meet the Author: John Truby
John Truby is Hollywood’s premiere story consultant and founder of Truby’s Writers Studio. He has worked as a story consultant and script doctor for Disney Studios, Sony Pictures, FOX, and HBO, among others, and has taught his 22-Step Great Screenwriting and Genre classes to over 40,000 students worldwide.