Few people left high school without reading J.D. Salinger’s famed literary classic The Catcher in the Rye. Widely regarded as one of the first American novels to truly capture the spirit, angst, and identity of adolescence, Catcher found a receptive audience in the thousands of young people who recognized themselves in the character of Holden Caulfield. Despite its popularity, the coming-of-age novel and its cynical protagonist were never depicted on the big screen. Instead, IFC Films’ new biographical drama Rebel in the Rye explores the life of its creator, his rise to literary fame, and his eventual descent into recluse.
Based on “J.D. Salinger: A Life,” by Kenneth Slawenski, Rebel in the Rye dramatizes Salinger’s creation of the Caulfield character and his own infamously hermetic life, recounting the events that led him to withdraw from much of society. We meet Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) as a well-intentioned but cocky young man in his early twenties contemplating life as a writer. After learning that the stunningly beautiful socialite Oona O’Neill (Zoey Deutch) only dates published authors, Salinger enrolls in a writing course at Columbia University in an attempt to win both the girl and widespread recognition. There, he meets Whit Burnett (Kevin Spacey), professor and longtime editor of Story magazine. It is with Burnett’s encouragement that Salinger begins to develop the identity of Holden Caulfield, originally only a character in one of his short stories. When Salinger enlists in World War II, Burnett urges him to continue writing during combat and Holden becomes Salinger’s salvation overseas. The audience is given the impression that without The Catcher in the Rye to give Salinger purpose during combat, he most likely would have succumbed to the brutalities of war. His life—and his writing—are fundamentally changed by his experiences on the front lines, and he recalls memories of concentration camps and wartime atrocities in painful detail. Deeply troubled by the war and its aftermath, Salinger retreats into his writing and threatens his work, family, and sanity in order to save himself.
A familiarity with The Catcher in the Rye is by no means necessary to understand the plot, but does cultivate a greater appreciation of the film’s nuanced moments for viewers who have read Salinger’s novel. Holden’s distaste for the phoniness of Hollywood, affinity for Central Park’s carousel ride, and questions about where the park’s ducks go in the winter are rooted in Salinger’s own life and subtly interjected throughout the film. Director Danny Strong repeatedly emphasizes that the character of Holden Caulfield is largely autobiographical and based on the adolescence of Salinger. Drawing parallels between the author and his work, the film attempts to develop a more dynamic persona for Salinger that unnecessarily convolutes his identity with that of Holden Caulfield. But Salinger’s life was far too complex to conflate it with the life of a single character.
Rebel in the Rye is supported by a strong cast and and the connections that develop between cast members. Though his use of color contacts is unsettling, Nicholas Hoult plays a genuine and passionate Salinger. It’s difficult, and sometimes uncomfortable, to watch the devolution of his character from a committed and impassioned individualist to an emotionally abusive and reserved husband and father. Spacey’s quick wit and equally cocky demeanour provide the film’s comic relief, and the relationship that develops between the two is one of the most meaningful of the film.
But following the publication of Catcher, the film, like Salinger’s life, stagnates. Rebel in the Rye devolves from a cohesive and entertaining narrative and loses itself in the complexities of Salinger’s post-Catcher persona. The film’s attempt to draw back the shroud of secrecy surrounding most of Salinger’s adult life fails because, in reality, there was no secret to reveal. Salinger chose to move out of New York City and declined to publish any more of his work because public validation was no longer of value to him, not because he had something to hide. He just was a man who lived in the woods and wrote simply to write: nothing phoney about that.