Much like J.D. Salinger’s fiction translates poorly to film, so does his life to a documentary. At least that’s the case in Shane Salerno’s Salinger, a sloppy, hodgepodge work that illustrates the difficulty of making such a project from limited resources. Recounting the reclusive writer’s life for the first time in a widely-released film, Salerno attempts to compensate for the dearth of Salinger photographs and video by interviewing the Catcher in the Rye author’s friends, colleagues, biographers, and famous peers. Though an informative portrait emerges via these means, the use of cinematic contrivances to flesh out the story and an overarching narrative clumsiness handicaps its potential, leaving it little more than a high-profile missed opportunity.
An incredibly ambitious undertaking, Salinger feels like an abridged abridgment of a grander story, which it essentially is. The interviews may have been gathered primarily for the film, but presented alongside other relevant material and Salinger’s own words, they work immeasurably better in Salerno’s recent 700-page biography by the same name, co-authored with David Shields. Distilling those details into a two hour visual companion, the film plays like a haphazard collection of passages from the book, few of which are developed to form a complete idea. As such, many speakers feel random (if Philip Seymour Hoffman, Edward Norton, and Martin Sheen are super fans or have a worthwhile connection to Salinger, it isn’t mentioned) or insufficiently identified.
Key facts are similarly mishandled or merely assumed, such as a quick video clip of The Battle of the Bulge without exploring the campaign or even confirming Salinger’s involvement. Others are underdeveloped the the point of inaccuracy. In the case of Salinger’s short-lived first marriage, his German wife Sylvia may easily be read as exploiting him for U.S. citizenship, when she actually returned to Europe within a month of being in the States, an important tidbit the film mysteriously omits. Naturally, not everything from Salinger’s life can fit in these theatrical time restrictions, but to introduce a topic as worthy of inclusion and not see it through does the subject few favors.
Further hampering Salinger’s flow is a questionable timeline. Primarily chronological, Salerno cuts in numerous eyewitness tangents, recounting how a select few fans or journalists broke through Salinger’s post-1965 silence. While these anecdotes provide a specific insight into the years after the author stopped publishing, they often leap ahead too far in time, offering commentary on events yet to be presented and muddying certain information presented up to that point. One such instance introduces Salinger’s desire to have a famously pirated printing of his uncollected stories legally barred because he didn’t want his early works read, when at that point in the larger chronology Salinger is looking for any opportunity to be published. Trusting Salerno to explain this discrepancy, though, goes unrequited.
The film’s ultimate miscalculation, however, may be its reliance upon reenactments. In order to illustrate his interviewees’ accounts, Salerno casts actors as Salinger and runs them through multiple unfortunate scenes. Especially unsuccessful is a recurring sight of this imagined Salinger writing at a desk on a stage while particular images (often meant to be glimpses inside his mind) are projected on the movie screen behind him. Returning to this scenario roughly as often the limited pictures of his subject, the concept quickly grows stale and ironically, one might say tragically, these elements give the film a phony sense, a quality Catcher protagonist Holden Caulfield would not abide.
Such consistently problematic results suggest that a documentary, or at least Salerno’s approach to this particular one, may not be the best venue for Salinger exploration, especially when the director’s book achieves what his film does not. Components that cannot be displayed or conveyed on a page, such as footage of Salinger in France during WWII, may have been more fitting on an accompanying DVD of notable clips to augment the written word. Lumped in with the rest of the film’s scatterbrained snippets and paired with an overbearing string-heavy score, what are intended to be show-stopping sights come off as awkward and mishandled, as are its literary revelations of Salinger’s potential future publications. For Salinger devotees and newcomers alike, it’s a simple case of improper format, one that seems primed for attention due to its popular subject, but which fails to do that subject justice.
Salinger (movie): D+
Salinger (book): A-
Rated PG-13 for disturbing war images, thematic elements and smoking.
Salinger is currently playing at the Carolina Cinemas on Hendersonville Rd.