Salinger on screen would be a thought crime

5th February 2010 at 00:00

"Hey, Miss! Miss! Guess what?" shout Year 11 girls from the end of the English corridor. "Have you heard? J D Salinger's died!"

I'm searching, nay, longing, for the sad expression, the sorrowful shake of the head, the silent tear. But they're not there. And I know what's coming.

"Miss, do you think they'll make the film now?"

"Miss, can't wait for the film."

"Miss, would they get Robert Pattinson from Twilight to play Holden?" (Arrrggh, no, anything but the 'T' word.)

The film, the film. It's the essential add-on that makes the study of any English text bearable, even for your average independent school student. But why? Yes, of course they want a lesson off to watch the DVD and pass illegal Haribo under the desks. But it's more than that. They feel sure they will "understand" the book better if they see a movie version. How have we made the imagination redundant in this way?

The first question these Year 11s asked when I said The Catcher in the Rye was our exam text was, "Is there a film?" When I broke the news that Salinger had always refused permission, they looked so woebegone I thought the black arm bands would come out, and he was still alive then. Would I really teach them a text with no film attached? They looked pained. I may as well have said, "We're doing Beowulf in the original Anglo-Saxon. Backwards."

Granted, for teaching Shakespeare, the film versions are helpful, if they're good. I prefer the Zeffirelli version of Romeo and Juliet, but my Year 10s who are studying it for coursework swear that Shakespeare's middle name was Luhrmann (heaven knows how he'd have spelt it). For the average 15-year-old, Romeo is Leonardo DiCaprio and the Montagues and Capulets all wear leather, drive while leaning out of the window and call guns "swords".

The girls are disappointed that Baz Luhrmann stuck with the Early Modern English script, although as they're mainly drooling over DiCaprio and all di other hunks, this ends up mattering little. (When we watched the start of the film, two sat clutching each other's hands, quivering while awaiting the first sighting of Ro-Leo. I nearly called for smelling salts.)

However, when I taught the play once to a class of boys, they weren't terribly impressed with the Juliet in the Luhrmann film (Claire Danes). Also, they were trying their best not to be impressed by DiCaprio either. For both reasons, the language mattered more. Five minutes in, one boy raised his hand to ask, "Can we have the subtitles on, Miss?" It took me a while to convince him that they were speaking English.

The Luhrmann version is magnificent, if you're not a purist, and it does help them understand the play better. But it's not always the case with other texts. I've marked too many essays on Of Mice and Men in which students analyse the scene between George and Curley's wife in the barn. It's only in the film. In that case, their own interpretations of the text have been usurped by those of a film director, with mark-losing results.

No, I'm with Salinger on this one. For me, Holden should stay right where he is, on the page and in our imaginations. No one should capture the Catcher on screen.

Fran Hill, English teacher, independent girls' school, Warwickshire.

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