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film criticism by maryann johanson | since 1997

question of the day: What will the pitch for the J.D. Salinger movie sound like?

J.D. Salinger is dead. Long live J.D. Salinger, the movie? Maybe now someone will produce the definitive work about the legendarily reclusive author?

There’s already a documentary, by filmmaker Shane Salerno, finished last year, according to Mike Fleming at Deadline Hollywood — he’s even seen it:

I found the film, which doesn’t have narration, to be exhaustively researched and arrestingly powerful. Most importantly, it answers a lot of questions I and everyone have had about the author. There is previously unseen footage and photos, and a rich depiction of that unfathomable period in Salinger’s career when The New Yorker magazine was able to publish a new “J.D. Salinger” story fairly regularly.

There also are details of: his WWII soldiering in Normandy and interrogation of Nazi prisoners; his love affair with Eugene O’Neill’s daughter Oona, and the crushing disappointment of losing her to Charlie Chaplin while Salinger fought in Europe; Salinger’s habit of locking himself away in his New Hampshire cinderblock bunker for weeks at a time to write; his penchant for taking a week to craft a single sentence; the damage his silences caused his family; the futile efforts of friends to re-introduce him to the world; Salinger’s protectiveness towards his work; his refusal to sell anything to Hollywood, turning down 8-figure offers and first-class filmmakers like Billy Wilder and Steven Spielberg; his determination to maintain total control over his prose (so that when a New Yorker editor once added a comma, Salinger never spoke to him again).

Even more intriguing, Salerno’s documentary also reports on what J.D. Salinger literary works might be in the famed secret vault, where 45 years of unpublished writings are rumored to be kept.

Still, it’s hard to imagine that a documentary, no matter how amazing, will change the impression that those of us who even know who J.D. Salinger is have of the man. An editorial in the Sacramento Bee sums up that impression by what it isn’t:

At the end, with J.D. Salinger dead at 91, we have no memories of him. That is to say, we have no cranky anecdotes about thrown drinks, no second cousins who once stood next to him at a roulette table, no paparazzi pictures of him with his long face and solemn eyes staring with predatory kindness at some starlet in Malibu (careful not to look at her breasts, of course).

Which means, of course, that we can tell any damn story we want about Salinger, and no one can object: Who’s to say that Salinger wasn’t a vampire hunter? Huh? The Bee piece also mentions “endless rumors of insanity or Buddhist monkhood” — I see a movie about a globetrotting quest to achieve nirvana through offing terrorists and digging up ancient artifacts. Are we sure that Salinger was a recluse? Maybe he was just never home.

Go for it: What will the pitch for the J.D. Salinger movie sound like?

Got a title? I kinda like J.D Salinger: Revenge of the Fallen

(If you have a suggestion for a QOTD, feel free to email me. Responses to this QOTD sent by email will be ignored; please post your responses here.)

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