Salinger the Soldier: In New Biopic, Director Danny Strong Offers Fresh Perspective on Reclusive Novelist

01/16/2018 12:08 pm ET

Nothing stirs an audience's imagination quite like a compelling voice that suddenly, mysteriously turns silent. So it was with J.D. Salinger, the New York novelist whose uncensored coming-of-age tale Catcher in the Rye enraptured a broad audience when it was first published in 1951 and remains in print 67 years later, after more than 65 million copies sold.

Facing the unexpected heat of the national spotlight, Salinger retreated to his New Hampshire estate and lived essentially as a recluse, never publishing another word or letting Hollywood apply pictures and sound to his beloved novel. In the process, Salinger left generations of fans with a slew of unanswered questions and became himself even more intriguing than his novel's protagonist.

Enter into this vacuum screenwriter Danny Strong. Strong rose to prominence in 2008 with Recount, an American masterpiece that peered behind the curtain of the 2000 Florida election, exposing the win-at-all-cost attitude of the Bush team and the jaw-dropping meekness of a Gore gang intent on maintaining national unity. Strong's follow-up, Game Change, an evocative, behind-the-scenes look at Sarah Palin and her run for vice president, won five Emmys, including a screenwriting trophy for Strong.

<strong>Danny Strong, writer&#x2F;director of “Rebel in the Rye”</strong>
Courtesy of IFC Films
Danny Strong, writer/director of “Rebel in the Rye”

Perhaps, then, Strong was a natural choice to delve into the mystery of Salinger and answer the lingering questions the author left behind when he died in 2010: Who was J.D. Salinger as a person? Where in Salinger’s imagination and experience did his famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield, come from? Why did Salinger retreat into isolation, and what was he doing in New Hampshire, out of the public eye, during his final five decades?

The resulting biopic, Rebel in the Rye, written and directed by Strong, was savaged by critics when it was released in September. Many of them appeared palpably disappointed that Strong’s film was a biopic of the novelist, not a cinematic adaptation of his famous novel. Other critics labeled the film as disposably trite for the “easy” links it draws between Salinger and Caulfield, as if the novel’s protagonist was supposed to have emerged from thin air.

Rebel is by no means a perfect film. It offers the barest of sketches of several key characters, including Salinger’s wives and children, and provides very little information about the author’s final decades. But Salinger fans intrigued by the author’s biography and fascinated by the gestation of great literature will find themselves enthralled by Nicholas Hoult, offering a sincere performance as Salinger, and feel engaged by the author’s fiery spats with his Columbia University mentor Whit Burnett.

For audience members who have served in the military, Strong’s film may strike an especially resonant chord, as it explores the emotional aftermath of Salinger’s World War II service and his struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder after facing potential death in the Battle of the Bulge and witnessing firsthand the horror of the Dachau concentration camp.

Rebel reaches its greatest heights when it begins exploring the critical questions that most audiences had surely never thought about: How did Salinger’s military service change him, rewire his relationships, and reshape the novel that he was scribbling in his notepad as his unit marched across Europe?

Strong and I discussed these questions in September, shortly after Rebel’s New York premiere.

The film, which has just been released on Amazon, iTunes and Vudu, may now attract or repel viewers for another, wholly expected reason: Kevin Spacey, who gives a fierce performance as Burnett, Salinger’s Columbia mentor. In late October, weeks after the film’s theatrical release, Spacey was accused of gross sexual misconduct by dozens of coworkers, accusations of harassment and assault stretching over the last three decades. Spacey was soon cut from the cast of House of Cards, edited out of Ridley Scott’s All the Money in the World, and frozen out of future film projects.

Given Spacey’s new status as a cultural pariah, many viewers may want to steer clear of Strong’s film, just as they are boycotting Woody Allen’s new works. Other viewers may be unexpectedly drawn to Rebel, as it may be the last new release featuring the Oscar-winning actor.

Kors: Why the focus on Salinger’s military service?

Strong: It was a major part of why I was moved to write the movie — when I learned he was a vet and had PTSD symptoms. He comes back a troubled young man, then writes about being a teenager, and changes so many lives. Catcher really is a profound work of art that was borne out a nightmare, this horrible world war. He was writing it as he went from location to location in Europe. You look at who he was before the war and who he was after: Before he was this dynamic creature of the Upper East Side, swinging through jazz clubs, picking up girls. And then after writing [Catcher in the Rye], he felt like he had to isolate himself, which to me seems no doubt the result of trauma — untreated trauma. Forty to 50 years in a room writing and not showing that writing anyone: To me, that feels like therapy.

Kors: For PTSD, for shell shock? Or battle fatigue, as they called it?

Strong: Yes.

Kors: In the Q&A after the screening, you described Salinger as the Forrest Gump of World War II — that he was almost everywhere. What do we know about his war experience?

Strong: Quite a bit actually. He was in D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, the Hürtgen Forest, the liberation of Paris, the first wave into a concentration camp, an offshoot of Dachau. It’s documented in Ken Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life and Salinger, an oral history by David Shields and Shane Salerno.

Kors: His war experience and trauma are so central to his character. But the events of the war and his post-war psychiatric treatment are just sketched in the film. I figured that was a budgetary issue.

Strong: It was. I could have made an $80 million war movie from his life. But I didn’t have $80 million. I had $8 million dollars. Because of those limitations, I decided to take a more poetic approach, to give a glimpse of the horrors he witnessed during the war while writing Catcher.

<strong>Nicholas Hoult as reclusive author J.D. Salinger</strong>
Courtesy of IFC Films
Nicholas Hoult as reclusive author J.D. Salinger

Kors: So in the end, your film isn’t a war story. But of course, neither is Catcher. In fact, in the movie, when a character finds out that Salinger wrote the novel while at war, he asks him whether his novel is a war story. And Salinger says, “No. It’s just about a messed-up kid.”

Strong: That’s right. The film opens in a mental facility. And so does the book. … I believe Salinger was only there for a few weeks.

Kors: Do we know what kind of treatment he got at the facility?

Strong: No, not exactly. We know that he got treatment similar to what other “battle fatigued” soldiers got: basically, telling them that the physical jitters they’re experiencing will go away. And for Salinger, they did. But for so many of the vets, the jitters inside of them never stopped.

Kors: When did you first read Catcher?

Strong: As a freshman in high school. And I remember how much it affected me. It was the first time I saw my own angst and alienation on paper. Then, about five years ago, I was in a bookstore in the East Village, and I bought the new biography of Salinger. I was fascinated by the story. I knew nothing about him: that he was a veteran, that he was suffering from PTSD, that a story that has brought so much light to tens of millions of readers came from someone who was experiencing the darkest of horrors. To me, that was a profound.

The novel begins with Holden in southern California, recovering from a nervous breakdown. And once you know about Salinger’s life, you see the parallels — that this is a work of art from an author who is experiencing trauma. He talks about war and bombs throughout the book, about seeing dead bodies. Holden’s brother had been in war, and he had another brother who had died. To be honest, I didn’t pay much attention to those details when I read the book the first time. But after I knew Salinger’s backstory, they hit me like a ton of bricks. And I’m sure, in 1951, they must have really connected with readers. This was a country, coming out of war, that knew exactly what he was talking about.

Kors: Salinger shunned numerous attempts from Hollywood bigwigs to turn Catcher into a movie, pitches from Brando, Nicholson, DiCaprio, and Spielberg. What I’ve read is that his refusal comes from his anger about the one Hollywood adaptation of his writing: his short story “Uncle Wiggily in Connecticut,” which Samuel Goldwyn turned into a terrible melodrama called My Foolish Heart. Was that his sole reason for rejecting a movie adaption of Catcher?

Strong: I think it was. He hated My Foolish Heart, and he did not want to see that happen again. So he made sure that it didn’t. … There is a story about a producer hunting Salinger down in New Hampshire and getting him to agree to an adaptation of another piece of his writing. But then there was a disagreement about casting, and it never ended up happening.

<strong>Salinger (Hoult) with his Columbia University mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey)</strong>
Courtesy of IFC Films
Salinger (Hoult) with his Columbia University mentor Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey)

Kors: At your film’s premiere, you said that you spoke with the Salinger estate. What can you tell us about those talks.

Strong: I did speak with his estate. We had some off-the-record communications. That’s pretty much all I can tell you about that.

Kors: Who is the Salinger estate? Who controls the rights to his works?

Strong: From what I understand, the estate is J.D. Salinger’s son, Matt Salinger, and J.D.’s widow, Colleen. There may be others involved in the management.

Kors: Did you receive any feedback from them after the film was released — any reaction to the movie?

Strong: No. Nothing.

Kors: You titled the movie Rebel in the Rye. Do you really see Salinger as a rebel? Someone could easily look at his life story — his retreat to the woods of New Hampshire, his unending isolation from society and fame, his refusal to show his new novels to fans and critics — and say that he’s more a coward than a rebel.

Strong: I do see him as a rebel. Because he’s an artist. Being an artist makes you a rebel, period. You’re living a life of complete uncertainty, never knowing whether your art is going to resonate, make you a living, gain a following, or flop. Taking that risk, just to express yourself, that’s rebellion against the norm. Parents discourage you from doing it, as his did.

I also think he was rebelling against his era. The stories of his time were neat and clean, characters with happy endings. Salinger did not want that. He wanted to express an emotional truth, what relationships are really like. He refused to put a glossy, red bow on human existence.

<strong>Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s loyal agent Dorothy Olding</strong>
Courtesy of IFC Films
Sarah Paulson as Salinger’s loyal agent Dorothy Olding

Kors: Several critics have slammed your film, saying that it was a backhanded way of making Catcher in the Rye. Legally, you couldn’t make a movie of Catcher, so you found this workaround by making a movie about the making of Catcher.

Strong: I think that’s complete bullshit. I wasn’t trying to make Catcher at all. I was trying to tell a writer’s story — the story of the war-time trauma that changed Salinger and, in turn, changed the world. I think that’s pretty obvious from the film.

Kors: Other critics wrote that your film creates a trite parallel between Salinger and Holden. Holden wandered through Central Park, asking people where the ducks went in the winter, so we see Salinger wandering through Central Park asking people the same question.

Strong: Well, as I researched Salinger, what was so interesting to me about Salinger is how Holden-esque he was — if not the stories, then the feeling of him. Salinger himself said that there was a lot of him in Holden. That’s what I was trying to capture.

Kors: Salinger became an isolationist, with few contacts with the outside world. So how do you write a character like that? How do you capture the personality of someone so few people have seen or spoken to?

Strong: Salinger actually wasn’t the absolute recluse that you might think. He gave a few interviews and was involved in some community activities in New Hampshire. And in New York, before the war, there were a lot of people who knew him. In addition to the [Shane Salerno] documentary on him, there is also Salinger, an oral history of people who knew him, which is over 700 pages long. I also read a ton of letters that he wrote. And of course, there’s that voice in his published writing. It’s unmistakable. So in writing the script, in writing his dialogue, I had a lot to draw on.

Kors: What is it you wanted to get across in this movie? What’s the message of the film?

Strong: What it means to be a writer. What does it take? To me, being an artist means creating art for the purpose of creating art, not to gain something. Salinger, who for the last [few] decades wrote and wrote and never published — who wrote just to write — is the ultimate embodiment of that.

Kors: One of the other reasons the film resonated with me was its focus on meditation. Do you meditate?

Strong: I do. I do meditation that a kundalini yoga teacher taught me. It’s designed to combat negativity in the arts. It helps keep my inner-Iago away, that voice that tries to tell you how untalented you.

<strong>Writer&#x2F;director Danny Strong on the set with star Nicholas Hoult</strong>
Courtesy of IFC Films
Writer/director Danny Strong on the set with star Nicholas Hoult

Kors: In the film, Salinger because deeply devoted to meditation after moving to New Hampshire. Yet he remains bitter, unforgiving: at Hollywood, at his editors, at his fans, at his old mentor, Whit Burnett. In meditation I learned that if you’re angry and bitter about something or someone, you are the one bringing that person into the present, that they’re in the past, and if they’re in your present, it’s because you’re making the choice to bring them here. In the film, Salinger’s wife confronts him with this idea. She says, “You’ve been meditating all these years, and you still can’t forgive?”

Strong: Well, that was speculation on my part — that he stayed bitter, that his wife confronted him. Actually, in the film, Salinger does end up speaking to Whit again and does agree to write the introduction to Whit’s story anthology. So in a sense, he does forgive.

Kors: That reminds me of the storytelling ethic you described in making the film, about what is true and what isn’t.

Strong: Yes. The events of the film are true, but the scenes are fictionalized. Exactly what people said in specific conversations, I don’t know.

Kors: In the film, the way Salinger responds to war — coming back and isolating himself — it reminded me of many of the veterans I covered, guys who came back from Iraq and Afghanistan, went down into their basement bunker to play Halo all day, and just be in that new peace.

Strong: I see that. I think writing for Salinger was that kind of peaceful isolation, that kind of escape, almost a continuation of his service. He would wear the same blue outfit every day — very much a uniform for his writing. In his attitude, his approach, he was a soldier to the end. In her [memoir], his daughter Margaret recalls her father saying, “You never get the smell of burning flesh out of your nose, no matter how long you live.

Kors: Does your movie have a message for veterans?

Strong: I think it does. For vets, especially those who are struggling after coming back, hopefully they’ll look at the alternative therapies that Salinger used: meditation, yoga, writing. Maybe these will be helpful to them too.

A friend of mine suffered from PTSD after serving as a war time correspondent. She was very excited about the film. Salinger has been a role model for so many people, a voice people identify with. And her thought was, vets who wouldn’t consider alternative therapies like meditation, yoga and writing, maybe they’ll be open to it now, once they see that Salinger did it.

Kors: Maybe.

Strong: Of course, it’s not a panacea. Salinger may have found some therapy in writing. But there’s still an awful irony in the story of Catcher and its creation: a soldier crafting masterpiece from trauma, but never overcoming it himself.

For more reporting on military and veterans’ issues, follow Joshua Kors on Facebook and Twitter.

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