Early in his career, Salinger expressed a willingness to have his work adapted for the screen. In 1949, a critically panned film version of his short story "Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut" was released; renamed My Foolish Heart and taking great liberties with Salinger's plot, the film is widely considered to be among the reasons that Salinger refused to allow any subsequent film adaptations of his work. The enduring popularity of The Catcher in the Rye, however, has resulted in repeated attempts to secure the novel's screen rights.
When The Catcher in the Rye was first released, many offers were made to adapt it for the screen, including one from Samuel Goldwyn, producer of My Foolish Heart. In a letter written in the early fifties, J. D. Salinger spoke of mounting a play in which he would play the role of Holden Caulfield opposite Margaret O'Brien, and, if he couldn't play the part himself, to "forget about it." Almost fifty years later, the writer Joyce Maynard definitively concluded, "The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger."
Salinger told Maynard in the seventies that Jerry Lewis "tried for years to get his hands on the part of Holden," despite Lewis not having read the novel until he was in his thirties. Celebrities ranging from Marlon Brando and Jack Nicholson to Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio have since tried to make a film adaptation. In an interview with Premiere magazine, John Cusack commented that his one regret about turning twenty-one was that he had become too old to play Holden Caulfield. Writer-director Billy Wilder recounted his abortive attempts to snare the novel's rights:
Of course I read The Catcher in the Rye....Wonderful book. I loved it. I pursued it. I wanted to make a picture out of it. And then 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.
In 1961, Salinger denied Elia Kazan permission to direct a stage adaptation of Catcher for Broadway. More recently, Salinger's agents received bids for the Catcher movie rights from Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg, neither of which was even passed on to J. D. Salinger for consideration.
In 2003, the BBC television program The Big Read featured The Catcher in the Rye, interspersing discussions of the novel with "a series of short films that featured an actor playing J. D. Salinger's adolescent antihero, Holden Caulfield." The show defended its unlicensed adaptation of the novel by claiming to be a "literary review", and no major charges were filed.
After Salinger's death in 2010, Phyllis Westberg, who was Salinger's agent at Harold Ober Associates, stated that nothing has changed in terms of licensing film, television, or stage rights of his works. A letter written by Salinger in 1957 revealed that he was open to an adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye released after his death. He wrote: "Firstly, 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." Salinger also wrote that he believed his novel was not suitable for film treatment, and that translating Holden Caulfield's first-person narrative into voice-over and dialogue would be contrived.
Banned fan fiction
In 2009, a year before his death, Salinger successfully sued to stop the U.S. publication of a novel that presents Holden Caulfield as an old man. The novel's author, Fredrik Colting, commented, "call me an ignorant Swede, but the last thing I thought possible in the U.S. was that you banned books". The issue is complicated by the nature of Colting's book, 60 Years Later: Coming Through the Rye, which has been compared to fan fiction. Although commonly not authorized by writers, no legal action is usually taken against fan fiction since it is rarely published commercially and thus involves no profit. Colting, however, has published his book commercially. Unauthorized fan fiction on The Catcher in the Rye existed on the Internet for years without any legal action taken by Salinger before his death.