Over the Easter long weekend, I saw a film at the drive-in and finished a book that I'd always intended to read. The film was The Lego Batman Movie which I enjoyed very much and the book was JD Salinger's 1945 novel "The Catcher In The Rye" which I didn't enjoy at all.
In that great tradition of making connections which aren't supposed to be made, throwing out punchlines that were never there, and jumping headlong into a lake of conclusions without first checking the depth, this is a thousand odd words on why Batman was better.
Long long ago in an English department's storeroom, far far away, there was a teenage past version of me who was constantly annoyed that of all the books that we could be reading and had class sets for, the English teachers always seemed to pick the most frustrating they could find. We could have had Catch-22 by Joseph Heller, we could have had 1984 or Animal Farm by George Orwell, we could have had something swashbuckling like The Three Musketeers by Alexander Dumas but no, we got snore fests like Emma by Charlotte Bronte, The Crucible and Death Of A Salesman by Arthur Miller and although Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens was interesting I still found the explanation of The Poor Laws of 1834 in the back of the book more interesting than book itself. Of course we studied Shakespeare but I must have been unlucky or something because I missed out on Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, as well as Hamlet and Othello, but instead got As You Like It and A Midsomer Night's Dream. The contemporary novels that we must have got, I can't remember by name except for My Place by Sally Morgan and it left so little impression on me that I have no idea what the book was even about now.
I have this theory that English teachers have some unspoken pact, whereby they all have decided to inflict pain upon their current students as way of vicariously getting back at the horrible things that their own teachers did to them.
Since leaving high school I have read Catch-22, 1984, The Three Musketeers, To Kill A Mockingbird, as well as a stack of crime novels which are much taller than I am. One of the books which I hadn't read though, was The Catcher In The Rye and like some weird completionist, it was on my mental list.
The story basically revolves around a kid with the odd name of Holden Caulfield; which sounds to me like it should have been the replacement for the Torana. Holden has decided to drop out of boarding school and with all the forethought of a typical teenager, he sells his stuff and takes a train to New York City. While there he bums around the city and in the meantime blows a bunch of cash, accidentally has a prostitute sent to his hotel room, proceeds not to have sex with her because he wanted someone to talk to and then when she realises that nothing is going to happen she shafts him for more money, he goes on a date with a girl who ends up hating him, and he sneaks into his parents' apartment and ends up taking his kid sister out for the day.
I guess that it is supposed to be framed as a classic bildungsroman where the main character learns something of themselves and of life but apart from Holden swearing like a trooper, smoking a bunch of cigarettes and getting into places under age, he learns nothing and at the end of the novel we're left with the thought that he's probably going to run away out west. I don't know if we're supposed to feel sympathetic or antagonistic about Mr Caulfield but somehow I feel neither and if anything I've been annoyed. Yet again I'm back to my own seventeen year old self and am wondering why this book is consistently set on lists of texts that are given to high school students. This book hasn't reached Brave New World at status in my mind because it hasn't provoked me to hurl the book across the room but it has joined a list of books that I have no intention of reading in the foreseeable future.
In stark contrast was The Lego Batman Movie. The film started out with Batman being praised by everyone in the world but being deeply alone and cut off from everyone. He is threatened with the prospect of working with the police and takes it very badly and his nemesis The Joker is appalled by Batman's inability to hate him as the worst criminal of all. A plot follows where The Joker releases all of the worst criminals in the world from an interdimensional prison, Batman inadvertently adopts Robin and he ends up having to learn a lesson about working with others and letting people into his life. The film is replete with cross references from just about everything in the Batman franchise ever and it takes the point of view that everything is canon. As someone who has only seen the 1989 Tim Burton film and has had no real background of the 80 years of print media, this film was accessible, even to someone as clueless as me.
Both Holden Caulfield and Batman are deeply unlikeable characters who paradoxically know that they are deeply unlikable. Holden takes pleasure in "horsing around" with people in spite of their objections and Batman is a showoff to a fault and I don't think that I'd enjoy being friends with either of them. If The Catcher In The Rye is held up as a great piece of literature because it plays with the form of the bildungsroman, then although it achieves what it set out to do, I'm still not impressed. The Lego Batman Movie collects all of the necessary plot tokens and then cashes them in in exactly the way you'd expect from a movie and yet still manages to play with the form of the superhero movie.
Both of these things take delight in the very media of which they are products. The Catcher In The Rye is mostly written in the passive voice which those same English teachers who are trying to torture you, will tell you is an unmitigated disaster of a way to write a novel. They will want you to use an active voice which places everything in the present but I suspect that this is the reason why Salinger wrote the novel like this. Holden's biggest problem throughout the novel is that no adults will listen to him and the only one who does in the novel, has intentions of doing something really pervy. Apart from Holden's little sister Phoebe, the only adult who listens to Holden Caulfield is you, dear reader. Batman in The Lego Batman Movie both opens and closes the movie by breaking the fourth wall and talking to the audience. Again, the movie is self aware that it is part of a great cloud of Batman canon and steals from everywhere within that canon.
I suppose that if I had read Catcher In The Rye when I was seventeen I might have empathised with Holden Caulfield but as someone who is more than double that in age and some again, I do not. Neither do I think I empathise with Batman, whose desire to rely on no one but himself stems from a traumatic childhood where both of his parents were killed. The real irony with these two characters is that Holden wants to be listened to but as a reader I kind don't want to, and Batman doesn't want anyone to help him and yet as a viewer I want him to be helped.
Commerical success isn't necessarily the mark of goodness but it's interesting that no movie adaptation of The Catcher In The Rye exists. Partly this is because the estate of JD Salinger has thus far refused to endorse any movie adaptations but mostly I'd suggest it is because Holden Caulfield is not a fun character. On the other hand the story of Batman has possibly been told more any other character on screen except for Romeo And Juliet and I think that this is because we find Batman to be more compelling. Am I going to rush out and complete my personal viewing of the Batman canon? Probably not. Am I likely to read another book by JD Salinger? Probably yes. Does that mean that Holden Caulfield is a better character than Batman? No. The Lego Batman Movie is some masterpiece of cinema either but I'm still likely to watch it again before I reread The Catcher In The Rye.