PBS’s ‘Salinger’ has more on war, teen relationship
After making headlines with his book and movie about J.D. Salinger, Shane Salerno is ready for his final stop: the director’s cut on PBS.
Tonight, PBS stations will air the third piece of the deal Salerno reached last year for a feature documentary, book and TV documentary about the late author of The Catcher in the Rye. The PBS edition of Salinger runs 135 minutes, 15 minutes longer than the film released in theaters in September, and serves as the 200th installment of the American Masters series.
Salerno’s movie and book, co-authored by David Shields, caught the attention of the literary world by providing extensive details of at least five possible new Salinger works, from more stories about the fictional Glass family to further reports on Catcher narrator Holden Caulfield. (Salinger’s publisher, Little, Brown and Co., has declined comment).
Salerno’s project, which he worked on for a decade, also included numerous photographs of Salinger that had never been published, the fullest account ever of his service in World War II, and the first-ever interviews with a woman, Jean Miller, with whom Salinger formed an intense bond while she was a teen and he in his early 30s.
Salerno, who besides Salinger has been busy working with James Cameron on the screenplay for the next Avatar movie, recently answered a few questions via email.
The PBS edition of Salinger is 15 minutes longer than the theatrical release. What are the major changes?
There are a few surprises I want to keep under wraps, but here are some major changes:
There is important new World War II material, including an extended version of Salinger’s first day of combat, which was D-Day, and other brutal battles that forged him. World War II is critical to understanding Salinger. It was the transformative trauma of his life and is the ghost in the machine of all of Salinger’s stories.
There is a pivotal new relationship with a 16-year-old girl, which was a consistent pattern in Salinger’s life, and viewers will learn how a betrayal in that relationship served as the first brick in the wall of silence Salinger built. One of the key participants speaks for the first time.
The changes run throughout the film and provide a deeper understanding of Salinger.
Why make a different version for PBS?
When we sold the project, we announced that we were exploring a longer version for American Masters. The film finished in the top 10 highest grossing documentaries of the year, the book (published by Simon & Schuster) was a New York Times best seller and the film has had a very successful run on Netflix, so I didn’t want the American Masters broadcast to be simply a television re-airing of what has already been seen.
The book and movie inspired very strong reaction. Some critics praised them as revelatory and fascinating, especially about his World War II years and possible new books. Others said the tone was sensationalistic, exploitive and would have offended Salinger.
There was universal agreement that the material I found was unprecedented, exhaustively documented and answered questions people have wanted to know for 50 years.
As for Salinger, it’s not the documentarian’s responsibility to consider whether his subject would approve or disapprove of the work. I spent 10 years of my life on this because I was committed to getting it right, and we did get it right. The truth is some people just didn’t like what we found.
I have enormous respect for Salinger as an artist, but I reject the idea that he deserves an entirely different standard for biography than Martin Luther King, John F. Kennedy, Thomas Jefferson or Oskar Schindler. If you were making a film about any of those men, you would tell the great accomplishments of their life as well as personal failures, and that’s what I did with Salinger.
Some film critics criticized us for not examining Salinger’s work in greater detail but there were strict legal restrictions that prevented that. The 700-page book I wrote with David Shields is filled with literary analysis, while the film evokes viscerally for the viewer what it felt like to be J.D. Salinger during the most critical moments of his life. The goal of both projects was to separate the man and artist from the myths about him, to tell the real story of his life and to explore the cost of producing the kind of art that he did. I’m grateful that those who knew Salinger closely have said publicly that the film captured his extraordinarily complex personality.
What do you plan to do with some of the archival material, letters, photographs, etc.?
I don’t know. I have so much material. I have been contacted by universities and libraries, and I am considering what I want to do, if anything.
Are you still receiving material? If so, what are you being sent? Any plans to make it public?
Yes, I continue to be flooded with new material from around the world. The question is what to do with it. My instinct is that I have spent 10 years on Salinger and it’s time to move on. I’m also completely focused on Avatar for the foreseeable future.