Rebel in the Rye: J.D. Salinger Still Reclusive

Nicholas Hoult portrays writer J.D. Salinger in the film about his life "Rebel in the Rye."

Nicholas Hoult portrays writer J.D. Salinger in the film about his life “Rebel in the Rye.”

by Sandra Olmsted

Although J. D. Salinger became both one of the 20th century’s most famous and read authors, very little is known about the man himself. Debut director Danny Strong bites off the problem making a bio-pic about the famously reclusive writer with Rebel in the Rye. Fortunately, for the most part, Strong rises to the occasion.

The story of J. D. Salinger’s progress from smart aleck kid to reclusive writer, with stops at stymied aspiring writer and literary star along the way, takes the audience inside Salinger’s life and mind. Salinger, played by Nicholas Hoult, doesn’t often enough have that same terrified and terrifying look in his eye as rare photographs of the real Salinger did. The story of where that look came from and how Salinger’s famous novel, Catcher in the Rye, came into being, is revealed in the Rebel in the Rye.

With the help of his mother (Hope Davis), Jerry, as Salinger is called early in the film, defies his father (Victor Garber) and signs up for a Columbia University writing class with the famous Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey clearly enjoying his turn as this character). Jerry is a mocking and falsely self-assured young man, perhaps even the thing that Salinger will later despise the most, a “phony.”

Whit manages to take Jerry down a peg or two and get him to focus on his writing when he tells Jerry that his voice overpowers the writing. Jerry blithely relies that he thinks his voice is the important part of his writing, which will go a long way as Jerry eventually helps create a new style of writing in the post-WWII America. Jerry also finds a very supportive agent, Dorothy Golding (Sarah Paulson), who will put up with Jerry passing up opportunities rather than change a word of his writing.

Jerry struggles with the rejection that all writers must suffer yet dreams of being published by The New Yorker on his own terms. Then Pearl Harbor is bombed, and Jerry enters the Army. As his unit lands at Utah beach and fights their way across Europe, writing about Holden Caulfield saves Salinger, as he’s called now, from going mad until his unit liberates a Nazi concentration camp. Something in Jerry snaps, which Strong lets the audience experience with Salinger. Although Salinger’s breakdown isn’t dramatized, moments from his time in a mental institution reveal his discovery that he can no longer write.

Now, Salinger is truly adrift in the world, and his drifting is complicated by a fall out with Whit. Only the help of a Zen Buddhist (Bernard White), meditation, and being given permission to ripped up pages of writing he doesn’t like leads to peace for Salinger. His fall from grace and his upper class privilege isn’t as dramatic as greater falls from lower heights. Still, Salinger’s emotional problems are real for him, and other people returning from other wars may relate to Salinger’s struggle.

Although Strong doesn’t have a powerful, consistent cinematic vision for Rebel in the Rye, his film has elements of traditional bio-pics. Strong, who also wrote the screenplay, has the problem of revealing the truth about a man who hid from the world and of making a film about a writer struggling to write, which is not the most cinematic of activities. Still, Strong has his moments when he uses the film medium to get the audience inside Salinger’s head, especially when dealing with Salinger’s struggle to understand and process his wartime experience.

Based on Kenneth Slawenski’s J.D. Salinger: A Life, Strong’s film is rated PG-13 for some language including sexual references, brief violence, and smoking and runs 106 minutes. Rebel in the Rye, a IFC Films release, is in theaters now and is very watchable.


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