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Author J.D. Salinger, who died in 1951, with copies of his classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. (AMY SANCETTA/AP)
Author J.D. Salinger, who died in 1951, with copies of his classic novel The Catcher in the Rye. (AMY SANCETTA/AP)

The Salinger moment: Book, documentary – now a feature film Add to ...

The success of Shane Salerno’s 10-years-in-the-making movie about J.D. Salinger and a recently published companion biography has prompted the Weinstein Company to develop a feature film about the author based on the documentary.

“There is so much material that I’ve amassed. So much that not only didn’t fit in the two-hour film but didn’t fit in the 700-page book, and so the question is, what to do with that material, these extraordinary moments from this man’s life? And this felt like a natural extension for that,” Salerno said in a telephone interview on Wednesday.

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The film will focus on the period of Salinger’s life from his experience in the Second World War through to the publication of The Catcher in the Rye, in 1951.

“If it wasn’t for World War II we would have never heard the name J.D. Salinger. It was the formative trauma of his life,” Salerno says.

The documentary, Salinger, opened in limited release earlier this month. On Friday, it will open in 62 cities. The companion biography, written by Salerno and David Shields, debuted at No. 6 on The New York Times bestseller list.

Both have generated plenty of buzz, and considering that an estimated 65 million copies of Catcher have been sold since it was first published, there is a potentially massive audience for a feature biopic.

Salerno’s documentary has divided critics, a reaction he expected.

“I was in a very difficult position. I was telling the true life story of an icon, and there had to be finally the truth about his life,” he says.

But much of the negative criticism, Salerno says, isn’t purely about the film, but the idea that it is an intrusion into Salinger’s cherished privacy.

“The people who have tended to write the negative pieces, the film is not the star of those article. The whole idea of doing anything about Salinger is the star of those articles. And I think that that’s a ridiculous concept,” Salerno says. “The same articles praise the research of the film …what they don’t like is what we found.”

The film “honours him and his work,” Salerno says. “If I was going to do a takedown, I wouldn’t have spent a decade doing do it. If I wanted to do something exploitative, I would have released it right after his death, not worked for three more years afterward.”

While Salinger is far from perfect, it has won praise from several prominent documentary filmmakers, including Ken Burns, who called it “extraordinary” when it debuted at the Telluride Film Festival.

As well, PBS has secured the rights to the film, which it will run in early January in its American Masters series’ 200th instalment.

There is no firm timeline as to when the feature film based on the documentary will be ready for theatres. But Salerno, who will pen the screenplay, expects the Weinstein Company, which is distributing Salinger, will seize on the buzz.

“I expect we will move very quickly,” he says.

The question is, who will play the title role?

“There are some extraordinary actors who could step in to the role,” Salerno says. “Certainly at the top of that list would be Daniel Day-Lewis.”

As for the documentary, Salerno says that after spending a decade of his life and $2-million of his own money making it, he has answered the questions he set to address, he says.

“Why did he disappear, what happened and what has he been working on for 45 years? Those were my three goals, and those are all concretely answered in the film,” Salerno says.

Follow on Twitter: @Dave_McGinn

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