The Catcher in the Rye is a classic novel from 1951 written by J.D Salinger, and happens to be a personal favourite of mine. ‘Lean on Pete’ is a 2010 novel by Willy Vlautin, which I haven’t happened to read yet, however it is also a 2018 film directed by Andrew Haigh and happens to be a masterpiece produced by one of my favourite film studios; A24. I cannot officially say The Catcher in the Rye influenced Lean on Pete; the similarities speak for themselves and intentional or not, both stories seem to be connected
Salinger adamantly refused to adapt his book into any form of film or play; which in my opinion was a good call considering most of the story is comprised of the protagonists inner monologue and apating that into any other medium would be mostly voice-over monologues and would pretty much render the film a visual companion to an audiobook and The actual physical actions he performs and interactions he has with others are either mundane or common – things like riding the subway while the actual interesting events are rare so a visual representation would be much of a film at all really.
While successfully adapting The Catcher in the Rye into a film would be near impossible, I believe Lean on Pete is crafted in a way that expertly translates onto screen many of the elements Salinger found impossible.
Let’s look at the thematic similarities in the stories by starting with the two protagonists of the stories; Holden and Charley. Both characters beginning in different circumstances; Golden living a privileged life in New York while Charley pretty much being his antithesis, they both have3 overlapping fundamental factors:
They’ve both lost a loved one. In flashbacks within The Catcher in the Rye were told that Holden’s little brother, who he quote ‘loved more than anyone,’ had cancer.
We watch Charley lose his father. Holden dons a red hat which is a metaphor for his brothers red hair. Charley wears his father’s hat. The death and alienation surrounding both the characters traumatises them each, leaving them in a state of despair which ultimately leads to mental illness
But the singular fundamental characteristic that connects these two characters is that they are launched into a grotesque world with the desire to protect the innocent and pure. Holden wants to protect the children of the world from the profanity around them and in a way; protect himself from the profanity around him.
And Charley wants to protect Lean on Pete from being mistreated and killed, and, in a way, protect himself from being mistreated and killed; after all, he is a child with no guardian. The world is a terrible place and if he lacks the right resources – he will die.
Now that we’ve established the connections between the protagonist. We can see how Lean on Pete successfully manages to adapt the adaptable aspects of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ Salinger’s book consists of Holden going places, meeting people and explains how those places and people make him feel. His reaction to these p;aces and people ultimately shape the stories view of the world. Perspective is important here because the books written as though Holden is confiding in us; his audience, personal information no one could get out of him.
This makes an adaptation difficult because without a character for Holden to explain things to, it’s hard to formulate that world view in a natural way. Charley also goes places and meets people. He also has opinions of the world. And the film goes about expressing these opinions in two methods:
The first method uses no words at all but allows actions to progress us though Charley’s psych. In The Catcher in the Rye, Holden meets up with a former teacher of his, whom he begins to open up to. This is a moment of hope for Holden because this is the first time he’s been able to genuinely open up to someone and subsequently receive helpful advice.
Holden falls asleep on Antolini’s couch and awakes to his teacher, Mr Antolini stroking his forehead, which Holden interprets as a sexual advance. Holden loses any sense of security he had just gained, and his cynicism about people returns
In Lean on Pete Charley goes from sleeping on the street, to rooming with a friendly man he meets at a ‘homeless food programme’ names Silver, who lives in an RV. Charley gets a job, starts making money, and like Holden opening up to Mr Antolini, Charley feels a sense of security he had been lacking for too long. Then, to parallel Holdens crushed security by being molested, Charley loses his security when Silver robs him and kicks him out of the RV.
Holden talks about how this situation makes him feel; and this is where we see another beat in his personal arch. Charley on the other hand, performs actions, and through this transformation of character – how far he has spiraled. We see another beat in his personal arch.
These two stories accomplish the same feat but through completely different means – each catered better to their specific medium but Lean on Pete doesn’t express all of Charleys actions via wordless actions, It makes use of Holden Caulfield-esk monologuing in the Second of these aforementioned methods
In a Catcher in the Rye movie, Holden would either have to tell these thoughts to another individual which would defeat the purpose of him feeling alone and like he has no one to open up to which is a fundamental part of his character, or, he would have to tell the audience directly, which as I mentioned before, would leave little room for visual stimulation and heavy narration is already tricky enough to pull off successfully
Lean on Pete is able to circumvent these factors with the addition of, get this, Lean on Pete, a horse Charley steals from a stable he starts working at after Pete loses a race and is subsequently sold and left for slaughter.
In this situation, Charley is Holden, and Pete is Holden’s reader – his confident. As Charley and Pete venture through the countryside, Charley talks to Pete about the people he has encountered, and what he thinks of the world – Just as Holden speaks to us about the people he has encountered and what he thinks of the world.
Confiding in a horse is not the same as confiding in a fellow human character as it still allows the film to convey the same sense of lonesomeness; and it’s not quite the same as narrating because it’s still an organic portion of the story being told, and once the story allows Charley to explicitly say what Charlye has needed to say – it kills the horse and relies on the first method for the rest of the film.
In the end, Holden finally finds security in the innocence of his little sister and Charley finally fins security in his aunt. And we get the same sense of closer in both stories but through different methods.
Now due to circumstantial aspects of The Catcher in the Rye, these methods could not necessarily be successful when applied to an adaptation – a lot more of that story is set in the past and told through flashbacks than in lean on pete – therefore the chronology in which the events are explained needs to be a lot looser than in which a film allows for and something tells me giving Holden an animal to talk to through his romp in New York that goes into bars and encounters prostitutes – would not work quite as well as Charley’s romp through the countryside.
For what it’s worth – i agree with Silinger, no visual adaptation of his book could possibly translate with complete success with the internal complexity of Holden’s journey – that being said, I believe that Lean on Pete serves as a great example of a film that takes the same factors that are for The Catcher in the Ryue – anadaptable in a visual medium and adapts the perfectly.
I have no idea what Willy Vlautin novel was like, how different yeh movie is, or the thoughts taken when adapting it. But whatever happens, I believe that Lean on Pete is the closest thing were going to get to a Catcher in the Rye movie.