Catcher in the Rye’s legacy from its author. The

Catcher in the Rye (1951) has always been a favorite book of mine, ever since
I first had to read it, and I became even more captivated by it due to its
author – a fascinating figure who became almost an American myth, since he shut
himself off from the public eye and lived as a recluse. I initially wanted to
focus primarily on the book’s afterlife, however, I soon realized that in this case,
the separation of the author from the book is simply not possible. Salinger and
his only novel are like two sides of the same coin, and I wanted to discover
more about them and their legacy, and whether it is possible at all to separate
Catcher in the Rye’s legacy from its
author. The focus in my essay will thus be on two movies about Salinger’s life
– one is a documentary titled Salinger
(2013), while the other one is a biographical drama with the title Rebel in the Rye (2017). I’ve chosen
them because they were both made quite recently and because the widespread
medium of film allows me to include the response of movie critics as well as
that of regular movie bloggers.

Rebel in the Rye provides its argument before the beginning of the movie,
as the cheesy wordplay in the title already links the Salinger with his most
famous novel. Though when the movie was first announced, its original working
title was “Salinger’s War”. Having the word ‘war’ in the title might’ve sounded
too morose and depressing to the general public, so changing it to something
more familiar and appealing makes sense, which argues for the fact that
Salinger’s fame did not reach that of his novel. The idea that Catcher in the Rye defines Salinger is
then only highlighted with the opening line: “I regret to inform you that Holden
Caulfield is dead” (Rebel in the Rye,
2017). The eye-catching first sentence immediately establishes a relationship
between Salinger, who starts the movie as a patient in a mental ward, and his
most known work. He is a broken man; not even his fictional family can provide
him with comfort anymore, and he explains his disillusionment through the
presumed death of his most beloved character. The opening scene thus provides
us with the first of many book references, which sets the foundation for the
rest of the movie.

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And while it is widely known that the author flatly refused
all offers to make his most famous novel into a movie, this movie struggles
with desperately wanting to be an adaptation of Catcher in the Rye. Rebel in
the Rye clumsily offers far too many parallels between Salinger and Holden
– there’s the direct comparison of their romantic relationships, then there’s
the scene where Salinger is standing in front of a pond and asks the man next
to him where the ducks go during the winter, a quite famous quote from the
novel. Even Salinger himself is asked multiple times whether he is, in fact,
Holden, and by his own parents, no less. The idea that Salinger and Holden are
one and the same person is a famous non-sequitur and one of the movie’s main
dilemmas is how it addresses this issue. It simply concerns itself too much
with giving us answers and leaves almost nothing for the audience to interpret
by themselves. Temple (2017) agrees that the movie’s parallels to Catcher in the Rye are “frankly bizarre”,
and that reducing it to the autobiographical elements is far too simplifying. This
further proves the fact that Salinger’s legacy is, in the minds of most people,
inextricably linked to the novel. One of the reasons for that is perhaps the
fact that Salinger himself said that he was the only one who could play Holden
(though by that point he was already too old for the part), which plays into the
false reasoning that he genuinely is
Holden.

Albeit the movie spends a lot of time convincing the
audience that Salinger and Holden are one and the same, it also directs a large
amount of screen time portraying how Salinger became a writer, which is filled
with the usual clichés – his parents do not approve of his dream profession, so
he enrolls into a writing class where he has an inspiring teacher and then his
stories suddenly start flowing on paper. It’s never actually shown what makes
his stories so great – rather than that, it shows the audience the world of
publishing and one too many montages of Salinger frantically working on his
typewriter. And though the movie is based on a biographical book1,
Hoffman (2017) sees it more as “a ‘making of’ story, the long struggle to get
the novel about the disaffected teen in a red hunting cap on to the page and
out into the world”. Once again, the movie gives preference to the novel rather
than the author, molding Salinger into an even larger myth; demystifying him
seems like a hard subject to tackle, and Danny Strong’s movie did not pass the
test. Surprisingly, the answer to the movie’s overinterpretation is hidden in
plain sight – in the script itself, as Salinger, when he is approached by a
maniacal fan dressed as Holden, says: “Everything I wanted to say, I wrote in
that book.”

Meanwhile, Salerno’s documentary Salinger chose a slightly different route, yet it still did not
manage to alter the world’s perception of the reclusive author despite its
strongly intrusive quality, which Henderson (2013) sees as “the ultimate
invasion of its subject’s privacy”. The movie starts with a strong sense of
voyeurism, as we follow a photographer on his quest to take a secret snapshot
of Salinger in the late 1970s. While it is an enthralling way of starting the
film, it also proves that the curtain of secrecy surrounding his later life
still has an overwhelming effect on the understanding of his legacy; it most definitely
would not have been the same had he decided to stay in the limelight. Salinger then also takes a big leap of
faith when it suggests, on multiple occasions, that the author purposefully led
a notoriously solitary life in order to become even more famous. Like Rebel in the Rye, it suffers from
syndromes of overinterpretation, a typical consequence of Hollywood’s cynicism.
Shone (2013) agrees that this is “Salinger in the eyes of Hollywood, with lots
of ambition, demons, plushly exaggerated love interest, a portentous score that
never quite dispels the suspicion that Bruce Willis will soon arrive and start
blasting asteroids”. But it does have some shining moments – among them some
never before seen footage of Salinger during WWII, where he is seen accepting a
flower from a Parisian woman; it is very basic and stripped down, has no audio
or background music, yet still manages to be alluringly poignant.

Among the most anticipating parts of the documentary was
undeniably the discussion on infamous shooting cases where Catcher in the Rye was used as justification for murder; the most
known case being the murder of John Lennon. The controversial subject, which is
undoubtedly deserving of its own movie, is glossed over and swiftly forgotten.
If one is already familiar with Salinger and his standing in popular culture,
then this movie offers almost nothing new – the only relatively interesting
point that is made on this issue is John Guare’s comment: “.. if three people
used something I had written as justification, I would be very troubled by it.”
Abusing any kind of art as an excuse to commit murder does not even deserve a
valid discussion, yet Holden is presented almost as an inadvertent cult leader
because ‘kill’ and ‘phony’ are one of the most used words in the book, not to
mention Holden’s ‘people shooting hat’. If all else fails, then the scene cuts
back to a drawing of Holden in his red hat, looking at a carousel in the
distance. And though Salinger then reportedly said that writing Holden was a
mistake, their destinies will be intertwined forever whether the author
approved of that or not.

The most eluding part of Salinger is its unusual cast of storytellers, and there are quite
some famous names among them – the previously mentioned John Guare, and also
actors Martin Sheen, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, the
trailer having even featured Danny DeVito. While choosing them was undoubtedly
a good marketing ploy to garner more attention, it still does not provide with
a constructive reason for their collaboration. With Catcher in the Rye selling more than 250,000 copies every year, the
book has quite the considerable readership, and every single fan of the book must
have at least some kind of an opinion on the novel and its author – but what is
it exactly that makes the Hollywood stars experts on Salinger? Nevertheless,
the movie makers went even a step further and included stories of some alarmingly
devoted fans of the novel, one of the fans admitting that he had traveled 450
miles by car to find ‘his hero’. The fan believed he was entitled to an
explanation on the book and wanted to discuss deep topics, such as philosophy,
with the author, and in the end found himself deeply disappointed – he had
presumably never heard of the phrase ‘never meet your heroes’. Yet, he is but
one of many entitled fans who believed that invading the writer’s privacy was
somehow a good idea and would bring them closure. Haunted by Catcher in the Rye’s success, Salinger
did, though unintentionally, give his more simple-minded fans motivation to
seek him out with the following quote from Holden: “What really knocks me out
is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote
it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone
whenever you felt like it.” (Salinger, 1991)

Disregarding my opinion on the quality of both movies, I
have found that they did offer me additional insight into legacy of Salinger
and his famous novel; and just the fact that they are still appealing material
to movie makers proves that their iconic status will not fade away anytime
soon. Rebel in the Rye revealed that
the current status quo desperately wants to fill in the similarities between
Salinger and Holden Caulfield. While that could make for an interesting
research paper, filling in the autobiographical gaps just takes away from the overall
enjoyment of the material. The film’s answer to the question whether Holden’s
and Salinger’s legacy can be separated at all is a firm negative; one cannot
exist without the other (Salinger even says in the movie that writing the book got
him through the war), though this movie gives preference to the novel and its
origin rather than demystifying the author. I found this very useful, as it
shows that the novel’s legacy is, at least in the eyes of Hollywood, far larger
and more alluring. But one still defines the other, and Salinger remains just
as much a myth as his most known character – credit for that goes to Hollywood,
as they want to exploit his alluring legacy by selling audiences overly
dramatic and hollow portrayals of his life as a writer. Salinger is not far behind, though I found the video of the real
Salinger in WWII Paris very fascinating and much more effective than using
ridiculous reenactments by a C list actor. I have found the documentary
insightful for the inclusion of people who personally knew Salinger, whether as
a friend, family member, or as a neighbor, as their various accounts helped in
providing an objectively fair depiction of his persona, despite the movie being
at times too sentimental and sensational. And though all movies have a
voyeuristic quality in them, this movie felt shockingly intrusive regarding his
private life, which is something I had not foreseen. But it did provide me with
the answer about his legacy, as it was revealed that the late author
established a literary trust with specific instructions on when to publish the
stories he wrote after he isolated himself from the world. Interestingly, the
literary trust also prohibits a movie adaptation of Catcher in the Rye from ever being made, however, the novel has had
quite a colorful afterlife even without the movie adaptation and it is the
novel’s readers and fans who keep it alive, otherwise both Salinger and Rebel in the Rye
would arguably never have been made.

At the beginning, I did not consider movies as possible research
material, but as soon as someone suggested that I could use the medium of film
for my research, I came to realize that there are many different forms of media
that I could focus on. Watching the films has taught me that I have a strong
dislike for the autobiographical element and Hollywood’s sensational portrayal
of Salinger’s life – just a silent clip of him during WWII is effective enough.
But how does one then go about it if, despite the author’s wish for privacy,
only the genuine footage and the real-life accounts of his life are persuasive?
Where is the line between treating him like a real person and a scientific
object yet to be discovered? Encountering a moral problem like this was a
surprising development. And unlike Salinger,
I would not include as many accounts as possible for the sake of including
them, but would focus on the most important and telling ones rather than just
repeating the same entrenched ideas. An objective documentary should strive to present
you with all the facts and then allow you to make up your own mind, and a good
movie should not give you all the answers, but should present you with questions
and dilemmas. Nevertheless, my interest in Salinger and Catcher in the Rye has been sated, though I have formed a new
outlook on their portrayal in popular culture.