- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 13, 2017

We all had to read the book, but almost no one knows the story behind “The Catcher in the Rye.” J.D. Salinger’s 1951 novel about rebel without a cause Holden Caulfield achieved even greater mystery after its author ceased writing and disappeared into isolation until his death in 2010 at the age of 91.

Salinger also famously said he would never, ever sell the film rights to his book.

“I thought it’s an amazing and profound story and deserved to be a movie,” said Danny Strong, the writer/director of the new film “Rebel in the Rye,” which tells Salinger’s story as a young man studying in New York, his service in World War II and his meteoric rise as a postwar writer.

Mr. Strong had been an actor for nearly two decades when he first started penning television and movie scripts in the late-aughts. He was nominated for an Emmy for his first script, HBO’s fictionalized Bush-Gore drama “Recount,” and soon became sought after for “The Butler” and even both parts of “The Hunger Games: Mockingjay.”

But like many screenwriters, he longed to try his hand in the director’s chair.

“I thought it would be a good first movie for me to direct because [Salinger’s] a writer and I’m a writer,” Mr. Strong, who now writes for Fox’s show “Empire,” told The Washington Times.

“Rebel in the Rye” begins with Salinger (Nicholas Hoult) carousing about in New York’s nightlife by dark and, by day, studying at Columbia under the tutelage of a professor (Kevin Spacey), who encourages his young student to find his writer’s voice. Salinger enlists when the U.S. enters World War II, and it is these experiences that will haunt his writing on “Catcher in the Rye” when he returns stateside.

“I was blown away that a veteran wrote ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ I had no idea,” Mr. Strong, who counts Arthur Miller, Paddy Chayefsky and Ernest Hemingway among his influences, said. “Not only a veteran but a veteran who had gone through what he had gone through,” including landing on the beaches at Normandy and witnessing the Nazis’ concentration camps. “It was staggering.”

As “Rebel in the Rye” unfolds, Salinger, now a veteran, becomes an overnight sensation in New York with “Catcher.” But the newfound fame disturbs him, so much so that he steps away from the spotlight entirely, not granting any interviews for the rest of his life.

But despite quitting prose at such a young age, Salinger did leave behind a mountain of correspondence.

“I read letters from the early ‘40s all the way until the ‘70s, and you really see his transformation in those letters,” Mr. Strong said of his research. “He’s such a brash young man in the early letters, and the things he’s saying are what you would expect of a 21-year-old writing to his buddy.”

As with many who read “The Catcher in the Rye” as a teen, Mr. Strong found a spiritual companion in Holden Caulfield, what with his constant calling out of “phonies” and his general sense of rebellion.

“I remember being very excited reading about someone that represented my point of view — this feeling of being an outsider and alienated and a contempt of authority,” Mr. Strong said. “It was the first time I’d ever read anything that hit me personally.”

Now three decades removed from his teens, Mr. Strong picked up the book again while researching his screenplay, and he said “Catcher” not only held up but provided new levels of inquiry for an adult reader.

“If you reread the book after you see the film, it has a whole new level to it knowing his story,” Mr. Strong said, saying the scars of Salinger’s time in Europe haunted his prose — and “Rebel in the Rye.” “You feel the war being infused in the story.”

When asked if he himself has ever tried his hand at novel-writing, Mr. Strong smiles.

“Those are ‘real’ writers,” he said. “I’m a screenwriter.”

“Rebel in the Rye” opens Friday in the District.

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