Inspired by Salinger: Coming Through the Rye
James Steven Sadwith on what happened when he walked up Salinger’s drive, how is the final rewrite, and the challenges of scripting inner monologue.
Could J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye be successfully adapted into a play or movie? It’s a question filmmakers have considered since the novel was published in 1951, though the question is in many ways rhetorical – Salinger refused all offers to buy the film rights to his beloved novel.
In the early 1950s Salinger retreated to his home in a small town in New Hampshire, and had almost no contact with the public from the mid-1960s until his death in 2010. In many ways that only added to the mystique surrounding Salinger and his novel, with many wondering what the isolated author who had inspired generations of readers was up to.
The young James Steven Sadwith was one of those wonderers, but unlike most he managed to meet Salinger on two occasions by simply pulling up the author’s driveway. While attending boarding school in Pennsylvania in the late 1960s, Sadwith wanted to create a play adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye as a senior project. When efforts to contact Salinger to secure his permission proved futile, Sadwith and a friend drove up to New Hampshire and tracked the author down to ask him directly.
Nearly fifty years later, that experience and the events leading up to his brief meetings with Salinger formed the basis of his screenplay for Coming Through the Rye.
Jamie Schwartz (Alex Wolff) stands in for Sadwith as a bullied boarding school student who believes adapting The Catcher in the Rye will set his life in motion and win him respect and admiration. He convinces local girl DeeDee (Stefania LaVie Owen) to drive him to New Hampshire to find Salinger only to discover that the bestselling author is much less enthusiastic about Jamie’s magnum opus than Jamie expected.
Since meeting Salinger, Sadwith became a successful writer, director, and producer in television. His works include the 1988 television movie Baby M, the 1992 miniseries Sinatra (for which Sadwith won an Emmy for Best Director of a Miniseries or Special) and the 2005 miniseries Elvis.
Coming Through the Rye is Sadwith’s first theatrically-released feature in his career, and since premiering at the 2015 Austin Film Festival it has gone on to win awards at several film festivals including Best American Independent Film at the 2016 Cleveland International Film Festival and Best Film and Best Screenplay at the 2016 Phoenix Film Festival.
Creative Screenwriting spoke to Sadwith about the challenges of writing an autobiographical screenplay, how editing a film is the final rewrite, and the process of adaptation.
This film is inspired by true events. Can you explain the real-life inspiration behind the film?
The movie is about eighty-five percent accurate with what happened up to the moment when I went to search for J.D. Salinger, and from that point it’s about ninety-nine percent accurate.
All the dialogue between myself and Salinger, going in his house, and all the people they talk to along the way is all pretty much what happened. That was a seminal event in my life. People kept asking me when I was going to tell this story, but I was pretty busy developing the other jobs I was getting in television.
I was never quite sure that the real story was enough for a movie, so that was a bit of an obstacle. When it was finally time I decided to stop everything and make a feature film, and this is that film. I hope I was able to solve those obstacles.
Let’s talk about those obstacles. What were some of the obstacles you saw, and how did you go about solving them in the screenplay?
The first obstacle is one I always have a problem with.
The first script that I wrote was made into a television movie with George Burns, Robby Benson, and Cliff Robertson titled Two of a Kind. It was also a somewhat autobiographical story about my grandfather who had withered away in a nursing home. He had a stroke and he wouldn’t talk. I always felt that if I could just get him out of the wheelchair and say, “Come on, Papa! We’re going out to lunch. We’re going to go see a movie or go miniature golfing!” that I could’ve rehabilitated him.
I always wanted to tell that story about a kid who accomplishes that and rehabilitates his grandfather, but I was stuck because it was me. I kept feeling like I was not a good protagonist.
Then I saw a 60 Minutes episode about developmentally-disabled young adults living in independent living situations. There was one character who just wouldn’t take no for an answer. He was pulling on the cameraman’s arm to take him up to his room and then down to the basement. I thought, “Well, that’s the guy who won’t take ‘No’ from his grandfather as an answer.” Then I was able to write it.
With this movie, it was me again and I didn’t quite know what to do. I just started writing and added some elements.
I went to an all-boys boarding school, but I thought it would’ve been more interesting if he didn’t go with a guy on this adventure to find Salinger, as I did – I went with a friend who drove up from New Jersey.
I felt compelled to write a coming-of-age story which involved coming-of-age with girls. I transposed that into a townie girl who is also based on a real person, or a couple of real people. There was a girl in the local town that I was in school plays with at boarding school and had become a friend of mine. There were a couple of incidents that actually happened with her that inspired scenes in the movie. That helped me get past the actual story.
Speaking of that female character, the sex scene – or really lack thereof – in the film is one of the more awkward scenes for Jamie. Can you talk about that?
Again, I didn’t go on this trip with a girl but that did happen with a girl within six or eight months later. [Laughs] I thought it was pretty telling and helped reveal a character in Jamie. I thought it was amusing and real, and you haven’t really seen that before with the usual Hollywood sexuality of teenagers. I felt that it would be refreshing.
I’ve had various reactions to it. Some guys have said, “Oh my God, he’d be all over her! He wouldn’t have done that.” Yet there have plenty of other guys who have said, “Oh my God, I so identify with this.” That even includes kids today.
Jamie gets bullied at boarding school, but there is some conversation in the film about whether or not he brings it on himself or if he “deserves” it. Can you talk about that aspect of his character?
It was something that I wrestled with a lot because this is what happened to me. I think there are kids who are just bullied because they’re different and they can’t help whatever it is that makes them different. Then there are other kids who don’t fit in, and part of that is how they interact in their environment. I thought it would be more interesting if Jamie actually has some hand in bringing on the torment that he endures.
That particular incident of being worried about the friend and going to do something about it actually happened to me.
There were other things in my life that I feel may have also contributed that I didn’t get into the screenplay. There was also anti-Semitism which was in the screenplay and we filmed it, but we took it out because of pacing – people thought the movie takes off when the kids get on the road. There were two scenes of anti-Semitism, and it was just another two minutes that they wouldn’t be on the road.
Also, it seemed to deflect from the real reason why the kids didn’t like Jamie. It’s part of a bigger conflict picture, and I hated cutting it because it really reflected the tenor of the times and what really happened. But it wasn’t essential.
You write the story in your head, you prepare the script, it gets rewritten on the set by the actors and yourself, and then it’s rewritten again in editing. It’s the third rewrite, and sometimes it’s the most dramatic rewrite.
Much of this film revolves around the concept of adaptation. You actually did adapt The Catcher in the Rye for the stage when you were in boarding schools. Can you remember some of the challenges of adapting it?
One of the problems was that I was so slavishly devoted to the book, and I thought the only way the book would make a good play or movie is to put as much of it as you can into the script! [Laughs] There are just pages and pages of Holden’s interior monologue. I’m not sure how I expected the audience to sit still.
Holden breaks the fourth wall because he talks to the reader in the middle of the scenes, so that’s why I broke the fourth wall in the screenplay because I felt it was the only way to convey that sense of the book. In the play I had long pages of Holden’s interior monologue where the actors freeze on stage and Holden breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience.
Even before we did our first rehearsal it was clear that eighty percent of that was going to have to go, but we still used the technique. Sometimes when the actors froze I had a narrator in the booth who actually said the words and we projected images – like Allie’s baseball glove, the broken window in the car, the railway station, and a packed suitcase – on screens, one on each side of the proscenium and one of the back of the proscenium.
It was another way to get as much of Holden’s interior monologue to the audience, or at least the thoughts that he was having.
I did this as a Senior English project and my teacher gave me a B-double-minus. He said, “All you’ve done here is copied the book. But I give you a B-double-minus for all the typing you’ve done!” [Laughs]
You’ve adapted novels into screenplays since then. What’s your process for adapting a novel now as a writer with much more experience?
I have the same goal. I go through it and see what it is in the book that grabs me or moves me. What are the pictures in my head? I make a list on index cards and each one is a scene. Usually by the time I finish that the screenplay is often far too long. But I can see how it starts to lay out and I can pull out what I don’t need.
I try to be as faithful as possible, and I don’t try to do my own interpretation.
I’ve had a few writing challenges where a book needs to be worked with more, to put it in that two-hour format or four-hour miniseries. It’s like a treasure chest – you open it up and there’s all these jewels in there and you string them together.
I didn’t get a screenwriting credit on Sinatra (1992) but I did a major rewrite on it. I was the fourth or fifth writer on it, and not only was I given all the drafts of the four-hour screenplays from all the different writers, I was given Abby Mann’s twelve-hour tape transcripts of him talking with Frank Sinatra. Once again, it was like picking the pearls out and stringing them together in a structure that worked for the format.
It was the same when I did Elvis (2005). The screenplay was greenlit, yet it wasn’t quite working. I went back to the original material to find what really excited or grabbed me. It’s pretty easy to turn that into a screenplay, and I had a lot of good luck doing that.
Most of your previous credited writing has been in television. Was writing this screenplay as a theatrical film any different?
I don’t think there really is a difference. When I do a film for television I always write it in a feature structure. When I started, TV movies used to be seven acts – now they’re eight acts – but I just wrote them in a three-act feature structure. I always saw them as movies that are just shown on a smaller screen.
I didn’t see this as anything different. It’s a small film in scope that could easily fit on a TV screen. Nowadays it seems like anything can fit on a TV screen! I wanted to have the scope and breath of the exteriors and of the journey, but you can convey that in television too.
This is a story that is very personal to you. How does it feel to have the story out there as a film?
I’ve seen the film with maybe forty audiences over the past year – probably more than that because we were in twenty film festivals and some of them screened it two or three times. Cleveland screened it four times.
I used to go to all the viewings because it was just so novel and so rewarding to hear the audience laugh or become pin-drop silent. That’s a new experience for me, because when you make something for television you watch it alone, you get some reviews, and that’s it. This was really a thrill, and the audiences have seemed to really love it. The people who love it – and it seems to be a large majority – are passionate about it and come and speak with me afterwards.
It’s unbelievable, and I just feel so lucky I had the chance to do it and to have this experience. I hope there are many more.