Exclusive: Director Explains How He Tackled J.D. Salinger’s Life in New Film

LifeZette talks to Danny Strong about 'Rebel in the Rye' and the wartime experiences of one of the world's most famous authors

by Zachary Leeman | Updated 05 Oct 2017 at 8:42 AM

J.D. Salinger’s greatest professional achievement, the 1951 novel “Catcher in the Rye,” has inspired more controversy — and more teens to read — than perhaps any other book. Salinger to this day is one of the most influential and yet mysterious authors to ever walk the Earth.

Because he was so reclusive during his lifetime (he passed away in 2010), there is little information available about what the author's intentions were for his book and its subject matter.

Many readers and critics have seen Caulfield as a symbol of teenage rebellion, and his comments about the world similar to what Salinger himself thought. People have also seen the novel as a look at tragedy and at recovering from irreversible loss.

One aspect of Salinger's life that was often ignored until fairly recently is his time spent in World War II. Drafted in the spring of 1942, Salinger served with the 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Division. He was present at Utah Beach on D-Day, the Battle of the Bulge, and the Battle of Hurtgen Forest.

The combat Salinger saw forever changed him. He returned from the war with a very different artistic voice. He eventually honed his talents and created "Catcher in the Rye," a book many now feel was heavily influenced by his time in battle and the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) he carried with him afterward.

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"Rebel in the Rye," a new film starring Nicholas Hoult (pictured above) as Salinger, examines this aspect of the author's life and delves into how he created the masterpiece that still influences so many today.

"I was a big fan of 'The Catcher in the Rye' when I was in high school, and [Salinger] was a big mystery," writer/director Danny Strong, 43, told LifeZette in an exclusive interview about the film. The novelist was even more mysterious when he was in high school, he added, as opposed to now, as "We didn't have the internet back then to just go and look up information."

Strong, a California native, became interested in making a film about Salinger's life when he read the 2012 biography, "J.D. Salinger: A Life" by Kenneth Slawenski. The book acted as "an answer to my high school mystery," he said.

What most influenced Strong in the book was the window it offered into Salinger the veteran. The author was hospitalized at one point for "combat stress reaction," and his writing became a way in part to deal with his experiences.

"I just thought it was so profound that the book came from someone who had experienced war, and from that war came this book that then would inspire and move millions of people for decades to come," said Strong.

He added, "[Salinger] found ways to deal with those symptoms before there was even a diagnosis of PTSD."

As someone interested in telling the story of a "veteran finding his voice as an artist," Strong realized he needed to find balance in the character and take care not to be stereotypical or extreme in his depiction of a veteran's dealing with the aftershocks of war.

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"It's always a challenge," said Strong, but the director insisted he "didn't have an agenda either way." He seems to have pulled off the depiction, as "Rebel in the Rye" was given the Certified 6 stamp of approval from the veterans group Got Your 6, which partly works to better the depictions of veterans in all forms of media.

Strong said he knew Hoult was his guy after a taped audition.

Another challenge for Strong was finding someone to play the towering Salinger. The filmmaker said he "slowly and methodically" pored through countless auditions before settling on actor Nicholas Hoult, who has previously earned raves for his performances in hit films such as "Mad Max: Fury Road" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

Strong said he needed "someone who you believed could be a creative genius" — and he knew Hoult was his guy after a taped audition.

It appears he's not the only one to see the actor as convincingly portraying an influential writer either, as one of Hoult's upcoming roles is that of "Lord of the Rings" author J.R.R. Tolkien.

Said Strong of his lead actor's take on one of the world's most elusive but important authors: "He's incredible in the part."

"Rebel in the Rye" is in theaters now.

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