Salinger review

Salinger, directed by Shane Salerno, is a two-hour in-depth look at the life and literary career of author J.D. Salinger, which seeks to better understand the decades of reclusion after the publication of his first and only novel The Catcher in the Rye. In order to fulfill the film’s purpose, Salerno interviews several literary figures such as Tom Wolfe, E.L. Doctorow, and Gore Vidal, as well as key people in Salinger’s life, including his estranged daughter Margaret Salinger and former lover Joyce Maynard (though his son Matthew is curiously absent from the film). These interviews reveal countless new tidbits into the author’s life, which will interest even the most devoted Salinger fans, even debunking the idea that Salinger ever was a recluse, as he kept in contact with three close friends of his from World War II until the end of his life despite his reclusiveness, and would even socialize with his fans and stalkers on occasion.

Prior to Salinger’s release, the movie was surrounded by a controversy fueled by the suspicion that such a documentary was disrespectful to a man who valued his privacy to such an extent that he refused to allow the public to read 35 years’ worth of his writing. Such a phenomenon is not new, and similar concerns were posed on a more minute level earlier this year when a documentary was released on another famous recluse, Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson. While I cannot argue with that assertion (I’m sure Salinger would be especially irate if he heard the idea that he devoted more time to his precocious “Glass Family” than his actual family), I am more inclined to argue with another common criticism, that Holden Caulfield himself would call Salerno a “phony” for directing such a film.

Though the film was produced by the Weinstein Company, it is no more “Hollywood” than any other documentary, and nowhere near as disrespectful as the schlocky My Foolish Heart, the only official film adaptation of a Salinger story (though in the past many have argued that the characters in The Royal Tenenbaums are loosely based on the Glass Family). Salinger’s few dramatic reconstructions of the author’s life are so brief and modest they can easily be missed, and are ultimately overshadowed by a deeply fascinating segment on Salinger’s traumatic experiences in World War II, witnessing thousands of casualties of Dachau concentration camp and marrying a European woman who revealed herself to be a Nazi Party member, much to the chagrin of Salinger’s Jewish family. It also contains never-before-seen photographic and audiovisual footage of Salinger interacting with Ernest Hemingway in Paris and beginning his manuscript of The Catcher in the Rye on the battlefield.

Unfortunately, Salinger does not spend enough time examining the author’s works themselves. Viewers who have not at least read The Catcher in the Rye are unlikely to learn why the book matters within both popular culture and literary circles, though they will at least begin to disassociate its messages with the crimes of Mark David Chapman and John Hinckley, Jr. The aforementioned “Glass Family” segment is significantly stronger as it demonstrates how even though Salinger’s later stories such as “Hapworth 16, 1924” were too self-indulgent and drenched in pretentious Eastern mysticism to be received as serious literature, “A Perfect Day for Bananafish,” the central piece of the Glass Family saga, is Salinger’s strongest work besides Catcher and the epitome of his World War II experiences.

The film’s revelation that at least five new Salinger novels will be released between 2015 and 2020 with the author’s permission is also highly refreshing, completely shattering my concerns that Salinger had not only refused to publish post-“Hapworth” but had given up on writing as well. Intellectually engaging from start to finish, Salinger is much more than an advertisement for these upcoming tomes. As the J.D. Salinger Literary Trust also bans any film adaptations of Catcher from being produced in the future, it is highly likely Salinger will remain the definitive Salinger film, one that is much less “phony” than a Catcher film would turn out to be in this day and age


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