Sunday Pages: "Station Eleven"
A novel by Emily St. John Mandel
The reason there has never been a motion picture adaptation of The Catcher in the Rye is because J.D Salinger would not allow it. For half a century, he flat-out refused to sell the film rights to his novel. This should not have been a surprise. His contempt for the film industry is apparent in the first paragraph of the book, which ends with Holden Caulfield ripping his older brother, whom he considers a sell-out for eschewing prose for screenplay: “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.”
Plenty of enterprising directors and producers mentioned the movies to Salinger. They all took a crack at securing the film rights. Billy Wilder failed to convince him. Elia Kazan failed to convince him. Steven Spielberg failed to convince him. Harvey Weinstein (!) failed to convince him. All of them were sent away.
Nowadays, the novel’s place in the pop culture is as underlying I.P. for a movie or a TV show. We read new novels and instead of discussing the literary qualities of the writing, we have ardent arguments about who should play so-and-so in the movie. To the novelist, having a movie or a TV show made of your book is like having a blue check on Twitter. It confers a certain status.
The great novelist Francine Prose told me that the best thing a writer could hope for is for some producer to buy the film rights, but never make the picture. This way, you make a little more money, but don’t have to worry about your vision being perverted by some crazy director or casting agent. Anne Rice (RIP, Queen!) was famously upset when Tom Cruise was cast as the vampire Lestat—only for Cruise to be far and away the best thing about the film version of Interview with the Vampire. I can’t speak for all novelists, but I think it’s fair to say most of us would be pretty jazzed if Tom Cruise were cast in the film version of our book. If nothing else, the publisher would crank out a new edition with Cruise on the cover, and sales would spike. We may even make our advance back and start getting actual royalty checks!
But Salinger was not Most Novelists. He could afford to play hard-to-get. The Catcher in the Rye has sold some 65 million copies. Even if he only made a dime a pop—and he surely made a lot more than that—the royalties were more than enough to underwrite his modest lifestyle. He was a recluse. He lived in an old farmhouse in rural New Hampshire. He did not have expensive tastes. There is no evidence that he ever flew on a plane in his entire life. So unlike pretty much every other fiction writer going, he didn’t need the money, or the boost in sales and attention that comes with a movie adaptation (he didn’t need more of the former and famously didn’t want any of the latter). But I think he would have resisted selling the rights even if he wasn’t rich. He wanted to protect Holden Caulfield from Hollywood. He wanted to keep his boy pure.
In 1957, he wrote a letter explaining his decision:
[F]or me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons—in a word, his thoughts. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique.
In short, Salinger was afraid that the movie version of Catcher would suck. Which, I mean, it probably would. He could not bear the thought of these characters that he created given over to someone else—some phony—to play around with. He went to his grave without having to witness that. And God willing, we will none of us live to see Holden Caulfield on the big screen.
This brings me to Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, which is my favorite novel in recent memory. I’ve read it four or five times. I love it in every way. Published in 2014, Station Eleven is set in a world in which 98 percent of humanity has died of a great plague (the Georgian Flu). Unlike, say, The Road, Cormac McCarthy’s brutal post-apocalyptic horror, Station Eleven, despite the grim set-up, is not bleak. On the contrary, it is beautiful—an ode to all art, low and high, tabloid actor and Shakespeare. It manages to capture the miracle of existence without being corny or sentimental. Every so often a piece of art draws its bow across my inner strings in just the right way to make them sing, and that’s what Station Eleven does for me. At this point, I can’t read it without crying.
And now there is a show on HBO based on the book. It’s probably great. Certainly the source material is. I’ll never know, because there’s no way in hell I’m watching this thing. Just as I didn’t see Keira Knightley in Atonement—because that book, oh my god—I will not watch Station Eleven. I just can’t do it. I don’t even want to watch the previews.
Below is as much of the novel as I’m allowed to share—four paragraphs from Chapter Eleven of Station Eleven. But this is enough, I think, to make you appreciate the genius at work here. That we are right now in the midst of a pandemic, albeit not one as deadly as the Georgian Flu, only enhances the reading experience. All you need to know is that Kirsten was a young child actor when the flu hit, and is now in her twenties, and part of a traveling theater troupe:
What was lost in the collapse: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty. Twilight in the altered world, a performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in a parking lot in the mysteriously named town of St. Deborah by the Water, Lake Michigan shining a half mile away. Kirsten as Titania, a crown of flowers on her close-cropped hair, the jagged scar on her cheekbone half-eased by candlelight. The audience is silent. Sayid, circling her in a tuxedo Kirsten found in a dead man’s closet near the town of East Jordan: “Tarry, rash woman. Am I not thy lord?”
“Then I must be thy lady.” Lines of a play written in 1594, the year London’s theaters reopened after two seasons of plague. Or written possibly a year later, in 1595, a year before the death of Shakespeare’s only son. Some centuries later on a distant continent, Kirsten moves across the stage in a cloud of painted fabric, half in rage, half in love. She wears a wedding dress that she scavenged from a house near New Petroskey, the chiffon and silk streaked with shades of blue from a child’s watercolor kit. . . .
Shakespeare was the third born to his parents, but the first to survive infancy. Four of his siblings died young. His son, Hamnet, died at eleven and left behind a twin. Plague closed the theaters again and again, death flickering over the landscape. And now in a twilight once more lit by candles, the age of electricity having come and gone, Titania turns to face her fairy king. “Therefore the moon, the governess of floods, pale in her anger, washes all the air, that rheumatic diseases do abound.”
. . . . All three caravans of the Traveling Symphony are labeled as such, THE TRAVELING SYMPHONY lettered in white on both sides, but the lead caravan carries an additional line of text: Because survival is insufficient.
I wish you a safe, healthy, and merry Christmas, Dear Reader, and a happy New Year!
There will be a new podcast on Friday, December 31—a PREVAIL New Year’s Eve Special, which is gonna be lit, as the kids say. Otherwise, I am taking the rest of the calendar year off. Thanks so much for your support. I’ll see you after the ball drops!