J.D. Salinger, a man widely regarded as one of the most striking voices of the twentieth century, died in 2010 after nearly fifty years in seclusion. Fiercely private—often to the point of litigation—the author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye’ hadn’t published a single work since his 1965 novella “Hapworth 16, 1924.” Yet 7 years later, a trailer for “Rebel in the Rye”, a film about Salinger’s young adulthood, starring X-Men heartthrob Nicholas Hoult, is circulating around the internet. It’s not hard to imagine Salinger being less than thrilled at the prospect of his tumultuous twenties being translated into mass entertainment. But Salinger was not always so audience-shy.
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Born in 1919 New York City to a comfortable, upper-middle class family, Jerome David Salinger lived the aimless life of a fledgling writer, mailing stories to magazines and dating Eugene O’Neill’s daughter, before Pearl Harbor was bombed and Salinger was drafted into the army. From the age of 23 to the age of 26, Salinger was witness to some of the most horrific scenes of World War II, from the D-Day Invasion and the Battle of the Bulge to the liberation of Dachau concentration camp. Salinger emerged from the carnage deeply traumatized; after a brief hospitalization for combat stress, he resolved to commit the things he had seen to writing.
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But Salinger didn’t just start churning out war stories (though one of his most famous works, “For Esme—with Love and Squalor”, is narrated by a troubled soldier). Instead, he devoted his energy to narratives that, on the surface, explored the lives of wealthy or almost-wealthy people like those he grew up with: brothers, parents, children and friends struggling to sort out their lives. One story, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish” was published in the New Yorker and drew great acclaim. But Salinger was quietly working on a longer piece, revealing his progress only to a few close friends, Eventually published on July 16, 1951, it was called “The Catcher in the Rye.”
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Though it initially received mixed reviews, the simple tale of a depressed young man adrift in New York City quickly became one of the definitive books of the 1950’s, transforming Salinger into something of a celebrity. With literary success came talks of adaptations, and offers streamed in from the likes of Samuel Goldwyn of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer. Salinger turned them all down. Suspicious of the film industry, the thirty-something author instead suggested that he himself should play 16-year-old Holden in a stage adaptation of the novel!
To the world’s, (and our) great disappointment, this star turn never panned out. But Salinger held firm to “no Catcher movie” for the rest of his life, eschewing portrayals not only of his most famous work but his very image. After moving from New York to rural New Hampshire in 1953, Salinger grew increasingly reclusive, refraining from interviews and public appearances; his last interview ended disastrously in 1980. Salinger married college student Claire Douglas at 36 and had two children, but the marriage was a turbulent one, with Douglas running away and Salinger pursuing affairs with much younger women. Meanwhile, Salinger went after those who dared to create work about his life and work, suing biographer Ian Hamilton and cutting off all ties to his daughter Margaret after the publication of her family memoir Dream Catcher.
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Yet even though his public image was thoroughly anti-mass media, at least at one point in time Salinger did accept that his work would probably hit the screen sometime after his death. As he wrote in 1957:
Firstly, it is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there’s an ever-looming possibility that I won’t die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won’t have to see the results of the transaction.
Now, it seems that his prediction is finally coming true. After all, with a biographical film coming soon, a ‘Catcher in the Rye# adaptation can’t be too far behind, right? Of course, the man responsible for it all will never see it. But perhaps that’s just as well.
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