Rebel in the Rye — Film Review
Rebel in the Rye
Directed by Danny Strong
This is superb. It is one of the best films of the last ten years, maybe the last twenty. A very convincing dramatization of the young years of J. D. Salinger. It gave me a lot of insight into his character and the path that he followed in life. The film highlights several aspects of his life and treats them with sensitivity, depth, and balance. Crucial are his estrangement from his family and his particularly fractious relationship with his father. His mother was a more positive, stabilizing presence in his life and he dedicated The Catcher in the Rye to her. She stood with him against his father when his father opposed his career choice as a writer. It was his experience growing up in his family and his social environment that defined the character of Holden Caufield. Much could be said about how the issues in his family, which shaped the character of Holden, exemplified the conditions of family life in mid-twentieth century America, which spawned a feeling of alienation and disillusionment in a vast swath of young Americans who strongly resonated with the predicament and outlook of Holden.
During the Second World War Salinger was drafted into the military. He landed in Normandy on D-Day and experienced trauma and atrocities that scarred him for the rest of his life and deepened his estrangement from human contact. One cannot overemphasize the impact of the trauma of the war on his personal psychology. During the war his writing, you might say, kept him sane. He wrote in foxholes, he wrote in his head tramping through mud. It was during the war in Normandy, France, that the character of Holden Caufield crystallized in his mind and took shape to some extent on paper. The writing got him through the war, but was unfortunately ever after associated with the traumas and horrors he experienced. Subsequent to the war he had a long period of writer’s block during which he could write nothing. He overcame it in a long, slow process through his relationship with a Buddhist teacher. But the outcome of this process was that his writing had become a therapeutic exercise, a means of resolving internal demons, rather than a way of making human contact. This is why he retreated to rural New Hampshire and lived the rest of his life holed up in seclusion, writing like a maniac, but never publishing. It all goes back to the war. Salinger’s life illustrates the lifelong impact of PTSD on war veterans. Art, to Salinger, became masturbation, an internal catharsis, a narcissistic preoccupation, and actually a barrier, rather than a bridge, to humanity.
The film provides an excellent illustration of the healing power of creativity and how much of the impetus for art comes from the attempt to resolve some internal turmoil or wound or trauma within the artist. Before the war, Salinger’s writing reflected the issues within his family and his upbringing. You might say his writing was an attempt to come to terms with his family and the emotional conflicts and confusions they gave rise to. During the war, he seems to have used his writing as a barrier, almost as a way of splitting his internal self from the horrific experiences of his daily life. It served a protective function that became a lifelong self supportive device. Because of the associative bond that was created between his writing as a defensive measure and the war experiences, when he returned home and attempted to resume his peace time life, he felt paralysis. Reviving the writing would revive the traumas of the war experience. It took a long time to reach a point where he could begin to face and deal with the extreme anxiety and overwhelming feelings imbedded by the war. The writing became the means for his attempts at self healing, but he was never able to get beyond his wounds and reach out to other people through his writing. It is a great tragedy.
The other aspect which the film treats is his relationship with his publishers and his struggles to get published and achieve recognition. The pressures for conformity to public expectations, the desperate desire for recognition as well as for financial success versus the purity and authenticity of the artist’s vision for his own work are developed in their varied manifestations and complexity throughout. Many influences shape the final incarnation of a work of art as it is presented to the public. For example, in the case of The Catcher in the Rye, although Salinger is the one who wrote it and he is named as the author, the book would never have been written had it not been for the impetus offered by his teacher, Whit Burnett. Burnett was the one who pressed Salinger to develop Holden into a novel when Salinger was content to write only short stories. Salinger had more than his share of setbacks in his early years, but the acclaim that came with his ultimate vindication became overwhelming and led to his decision to cease publishing after 1965. It reminds me a little bit of John Lennon’s response to the hysterical worship of the Beatles and his long withdrawal from the limelight.
Nicholas Hoult does a fabulous job with the character of Salinger as does Kevin Spacey with the writing professor, Whit Burnett. Everyone was great in this film. I don’t think it could have been done any better. There were only four people in the theater watching it: my friend, me, and two others. Where was everybody? What could they have been doing that would have been better than watching this?