If You Make It, He Won't Come
On the homepage of the Huffington Post yesterday, they had an article here written by Thomas Beiler, "9 Things You Probably Didn't Know about J.D. Salinger." There's probably a 10th thing -- far more notable than the nine, because people who've never even heard of the author would be aware of it. (Although it's not as personal as the interesting items Beiler writes about.)
If you ever saw the movie Field of Dreams, you'll no doubt recall the character that James Earl Jones plays, Terrence Mann, a reclusive author of a renowned counter-culture book in the '60s who basically went into seclusion to avoid all the attention that had been piled on him, until Ray Kinsella (played by Kevin Costner) tracks him down. The character doesn't appear in the novel that the movie is based on, Shoeless Joe by W.P. Kinsella. Rather, it's an adaptation of what Kinsella wrote. In the book, the character is -- literally by name -- J.D. Salinger.
What makes the use of the real-life, reclusive Salinger all the more impactful in the novel is that in a 1941 short story he wrote, "A Young Girl in 1941 with No Waist at All," J.D. Salinger actually had a character named, "Ray Kinsella." Furthermore, in Salinger's iconic novel The Catcher in the Rye, the main character of the book, Holden Caulfield, has a friend also named -- this time it's Richard Kinsella. In the novel of Shoeless Joe, these "connections" are what Ray discovers through research after The Voice tells him cryptically to "ease his pain," that convinces Ray that there must be some tie between him and Salinger, and therefore why he must go and get him.
Before making the film, I was talking with writer-director Phil Alden Robinson, and as a lover of the Kinsella novel I asked why he had changed the character from the book, since it works so intricately and impeccably. He said that the studio lawyers were concerned about a lawsuit from Salinger. (There may have been some contact between the two sides, which I've subsequently read, but I don't recall.) Still not willing to give up -- never mind that the screenplay had been written at this point, and they were in pre-production -- I noted that it obviously hadn't been a problem with the book, since Salinger is a character in it, but Phil said that the powers-that-be felt that there was a sufficient enough difference in being named a character in a novel (which the real Salinger wasn't happy with) and the far more public physical appearance in a movie. So, Phil decided it best to just create a new character, with enough similarities that it would serve the story as well.
And so it did.
By the way, after writing this, I found something that Phil Robinson had written on the old Writers Guild of America BBS (sort of the precursor of chat rooms). He was doing a Q & A, and discussing how he came up with the Terrence Mann character in the film to replace J.D. Salinger.
So I sat down to create a new character, and my first several attempts were just pale substitutes. Boring, weak and uninspired. So, for the first and only time in my life, I said to myself "Just as an exercise, let's think of an actor." I asked myself who would it be fun to see in this role? What is the role? It's a guy Ray Kinsella has to kidnap. Who would it be fun to see being kidnapped? Answer: a big guy. A really big guy. I had just seen "Gardens of Stone", and "Fences" on Broadway, and thought it might be fun to see someone have to kidnap James Earl Jones. Then, like the proverbial lightbulb, I realized how wonderful it would be to have the character be black. (It is, after all, a film about America, and absent this character, it was shaping up to be whiter than me in winter.), At that point, I had a ball inventing a history for him: civil rights pioneer, Pulitzer Prize winning writer, coiner of the phrase "Make love, not war", friend of the Beatles, etc. It was one of those occasions when you just LOVE writing.
That's Terrence Mann. As for J.D. Salinger, he preferred his privacy, and so we'll honor his request. Therefore, here he isn't --
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Robert J. Elisberg is a political commentator, screenwriter, novelist, tech writer and also some other things that I just tend to keep forgetting.
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