As you might have noticed, Wes Anderson is one of my favorite directors of all times. You can imagine that it is not a coincidence that J.D. Salinger, the novelist who inspired Wes Anderson in so many ways, is also one of my favorite writers. I love it when great masters refer to other great masters. In this blogpost I will discuss their similar plots, but be aware that this is only the beginning of their similar geniality. Further blogposts will discuss many more similarities, so stay tuned.
Salinger’s tragicomic stories of dysfunctional families have inspired Wes Anderson a great deal. Especially Anderson’s first three films have a lot in common with J.D. Salinger’s novel The Catcher in the Rye and his short stories, but the rest of his oeuvre is also in many ways indebted to Salinger.
Both authors have a recognizable style and have a particular opinion about the design of their works. In the case of Anderson, the font Futura Bold always returns on movie posters and DVD covers along with his typical colorful, carefully designed style. Salinger, however, wanted his covers to be entirely bare, with only the title of his book and his own name on them. That is why, each new edition, there was a search for a stylish and recognizable font which from then on would always be linked to the writer. Their technical virtuosity, unique and recognizable style, recurring themes and metaphorical structures link these authors and make it worth studying their similarities.
“Beyond lifting certain events and situations, Anderson shows an affinity for Salinger in his tone and style. Like Salinger’s fiction, Anderson’s films have a crisp directness and bouncy energy that can initially be mistaken for escapist until the artist springs a grim surprise or brings an undercurrent of dissatisfaction or despair to the surface”(Seitz).
These escapist as well as dark worlds are inhabited with gloomy, sensitive and intelligent youngsters who are as obsessed with life as they are with death. Salinger is known for his short fiction, even his sole novel only counts two hundred and forty pages. The shortness and sharpness of Salinger’s tours de force are comparable to the length of Anderson’s features, which always stay, with an average of ninety-nine minutes, under the full two hours (Baskett 61). Their works are thus always sec and to the point.
Similar Plots & Characters
On the level of the plot, there are numerous similarities between the movies Bottle Rocket and Rushmore and Salinger’s coming of age novel The Catcher in the Rye. Anthony, Max and Holden Caulfield, the main character in The Catcher in the Rye, are all young men, on the verge of becoming adults who are self-absorbed and worried about their status. Just like Holden, Anthony is so exhausted and tired of the phony bourgeois life, that he has to be treated in a mental institution. All three young men want adventure and excitement in their lives and Max and Holden try to fill this gap by joining as many extracurricular activities as possible and by taking up several new hobbies. This enthusiasm for unconventional ways to get through high school eventually gets them expelled. Anthony has already graduated from high school and takes this longing for adventure even further by getting involved in criminal activities.
The only family member of both Holden and Anthony we really get to know is their kid sister whom they dote on. Both young girls are in many ways wiser than their older brothers, and their fresh and youthful insights show the reader that it is this innocence that our heroes long for. In the case of Holden and Max, there is also the grief for a dead and beloved family member. One of the reasons why Holden wants a close relationship with his little sister, Phoebe, is the death of their brother, Allie. Allie was not a phony, but a truly good person. The deaths of Max’s mother and Holden’s brother have encouraged their self-pity and their feeling that life is not fair. But instead of being overly emotional in public all the time, they hide their sorrows behind a mask of humor and a self-constructed status of young intellectuals. This behavior actually reinforces our view of the heroes as sad, depressed and disaffected youngsters. Anderson intensifies their humorous sadness through extremely stylized shots.
Max keeps his preppy Rushmore uniform on, even though he has been expelled and started attending another school, and lies about the profession of his father who is not a surgeon, but a barber. Both adolescents deliberately do not act their age, thinking they are considered to be wise and all grown up. They embody the teenager who is stuck in between childhood and adulthood and who exhibits characteristics of both age groups. Holden goes out to bars where he orders alcohol, flirts with the mother of a friend from school and tries – but fails – to sleep with a prostitute to feel more mature. It is ironic that Holden looks older than he actually is:
I was sixteen then, and I’m seventeen now, and sometimes I act like I’m about thirteen. It’s really ironical because I’m six-foot-two-and-a-half and I have grey hair. I really do. The one side of my head – the right side – is full of millions of grey hairs. I’ve had them ever since I was a kid. And yet I still act sometimes like I was only about twelve. Everybody says that, especially my father. It’s partly true, too, but it isn’t all true. People always think something’s all true. I don’t give a damn, except that I act a lot older than I am – I really do – but people never notice it. People never notice anything (Salinger “Catcher” 13).
His grey hairs and his own imaginary dandyesque persona are in sharp contrast with his childish and immature behavior. His film twin brother, Max, also has the looks of an old soul and to reinforce his own reputation as a grown-up, he becomes friends with the much older Mr. Blume and falls in love with the kindergarten teacher Mrs. Cross. Mrs. Cross bonds with Max over a Cousteau book he borrowed in the school library, which Edward Appleby, Mrs. Cross’ dead husband gave her. Max sees this as the beginning of a love story, whereas Mrs. Cross sees it as a friendship with a somewhat odd student.
Anderson’s third feature, The Royal Tenenbaums, is highly allusive towards Salinger’s Glass saga, which he displays in the collection of short stories Nine Stories, Franny and Zooey, and Raise High the Roof Beam and Seymour. Beatrice “Boo Boo” Glass, who is the central character in “Down at the Dinghy”, will take on the name of her husband, Tannenbaum. This is only one of the several clues that the New York based Glass family was a great inspiration for the Tenenbaum family. The Glass children and the Tenenbaum children have in common that they are considered to be child prodigies. Most of them are readers and writers or involved in theatre, and appear on the radio regularly. In The Royal Tenenbaums, young Richie broadcasts from his own radio station, H.A.M. radio, whereas the Glass kids all appear on a radio show called It’s a Wise Child. The kid geniuses are used to giving interviews and forming opinions from early on, but as they grow older, and the glory has faded, they are lost souls looking for their own meaning of life. Both the Glass family and the Tenenbaums are bourgeois families who have lost their glory and grace, which has resulted in depressions and weird relationships between the siblings and their parents.
The scene in The Royal Tenenbaums in which Richie is waiting for Margot to pick him up and Margot’s arrival in a Green Line bus, is almost an exact copy of the arrival of Franny at the train station where Lane, her boyfriend, is waiting.
Franny was among the first of the girls to get off the train, from a car at the far northern end of the platform. Lane spotted her immediately, and despite whatever it was he was trying to do with his face, his arm that shot up into the air was the whole truth. Franny saw him, and waved extravagantly back. She was wearing a sheared raccoon coat, and Lane, walking toward her quickly but with a slow face, reasoned to himself, with suppressed excitement, that he was the only one on the platform who really knew Franny’s coat. He remembered that once, in a borrowed car, after kissing Franny for a half hour or so, he had kissed her coat lapel, as though it were a perfectly desirable, organic extension of the person herself (Salinger “Franny” 6).
Margot is also seen through the male gaze, which Anderson has translated in a slow motion sequence on the tones of Nico’s These Days.
The male, Richie in this case, cannot help but smile and look at her and the clothes she is wearing. Just like Franny, Margot is dressed in a fur coat, which is also an organic extension of her. In the short story about Zooey, Franny is further described. Her brother describes her hair as “jet-black and very prettily cut, and had been washed three times in as many days” (Salinger “Zooey” 81). On the next page he adds that “her hair, cut fashionably short, had survived sleep very well indeed” (82). Margot’s hair is also cut fashionably short, very sharp and looks as if it is washed each day – she basically lives in her bathroom, which makes this possible. The color of her hair, however, is bright blond, which is the opposite of jet-black. But when Margot runs away on her fourteenth to visit her biological family in Indiana, her hair is dyed jet-black. The following description of Franny could easily be a description of Margot as well:
There were half circles under her eyes, and other, subtler signs that mark an acutely troubled young girl, but nonetheless no one could have missed seeing that she was a first-class beauty. Her skin was lovely, and her features were delicate and most distinctive. Her eyes were very nearly the same quite astonishing shade of blue as Zooey’s, but were set farther apart […] (ibid.).
Anderson has even put more focus on Margot’s fierce blue eyes and beautiful, pale skin by adding tons of eye-liner. Both young women retreat to their parent’s house because they feel depressed and need the warmth and comfort of family to heal and lift their spirits. The relationship between Franny and Zooey can be compared to the relationship between Richie and Margot. They both have a very close bond and confide in each other. Although the relationship of Franny and Zooey does not result in an incestuous relationship – they are indeed real siblings – they are very close and Zooey admires his sister’s beauty. Salinger often describes women’s ankles and calves in order to point at the graciousness of the female: “Zooey’s attention, however, had been diverted. He was looking down at the sun-bathed afghan where it covered Franny’s calves and ankles” (Salinger “Zooey” 84). Since Franny and Zooey are the only two really handsome siblings, it is not weird that when describing them, a lot of attention is given to their appearance, nor that they admire one another’s beauty.
Besides the close bond with their sisters, Zooey and Richie have in common that both characters are described or shown while shaving exhaustively and looking into their own eyes.
Salinger writes that Zooey, “although he looked into the mirror while he lathered, he didn’t watch where his brush was moving but, instead, looked directly into his own eyes […]” (“Zooey” 60). Anderson shows Luke Wilson as Richie in front of the mirror, looking directly into his own eyes as well, but since the camera has replaced the mirror, it seems as if he is looking directly at us, the audience. When Richie whispers “I’m going to kill myself tomorrow”, it can be interpreted as if he is talking to himself, but also as if he is talking to us, the viewers. Joshua Gooch has, in his article “Making a Go of It”, analyzed this scene as follows:
Standing in the blue light of his bathroom, Richie cuts his trademark 1970s tennis-pro hair and begins to shave his beard, removing all vestiges of Richie Tenenbaum’s facial characteristics. At his moment, Richie emerges as actor Luke Wilson – or rather, Richie becomes more difficult to view as Richie given the dramatic visual change ( 34).
Richie, after getting rid of his “costume”, has stripped himself of his past and parts of his personality. So in short, Richie and Zooey are constantly wearing suits, are very conscious of their appearance and both undergo a metamorphosis in front of the mirror, though Richie’s metamorphosis is more drastic.
The link between the Glass family and the Tenenbaums is not only a one-to-one relationship between Franny and Margot, and Richie and Zooey. Margot actually has a lot in common with Zooey as well. Both have been smoking since they were relatively young, they tend to be ironic and sarcastic towards people who mean well, their natural habitat is the bathroom in which they have – without their consent – heart-to-hearts with their mothers who try to understand what is going on with their children, but fail to do so. Their children have grown up and don’t confide in their mother anymore which makes them feel as if they have fallen short in their education.
These generational conflicts run through all Anderson’s and Salinger’s stories. Zooey wonders “just how in hell [they] ever landed in this goddamn jungle, all the way from “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” (Salinger “Zooey” 85). Their parents used to be creative: They were rather famous singers and dancers and had parties all the time. “You Needn’t Be So Mean, Baby” was one of their songs and Les, the Glass patriarch, has tried singing it to Franny in order to make her feel better. Now they are retired and Franny wants to stop acting and become a more devout Buddhist because she feels as if the world of theatre is too phony. Zooey is having trouble finding a good role to play and Buddy suffers from a writer’s block because he wants to write a book about his brother Seymour, but finds it difficult to be thorough without being too personal. The reason for the depressed atmosphere in the Glass residence might be that they are not fully using their creative abilities. Margot, like Zooey, will describe the years of dysfunction in their family as a jungle. The play she stages as a child exhibits children dressed as animals, and her latest play, The Levinsons in the Trees, portrays a family living in a jungle.
As you can see, the plotlines and characters are very similar! Nex time I will be writing about Animals and Imagination in the work of Salinger and Anderson.
Baskett, Sam S. “The Splendid/Squalid World of J. D. Salinger”. Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature 4.1 (1963): 48-61.
Gooch, Joshua. “Making a Go of It: Paternity and Prohibition in the Films of Wes Anderson. Cinema Journal.” Cinema Journal 47.1 (2007): 26-48.
Salinger, J.D. Nine Stories. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1991.
Salinger, J.D. Franny and Zooey. London: Penguin Books, 2010.
Salinger, J.D. The Catcher in the Rye. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1981.
Salinger, J.D. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
Seitz, Matt Zoller. “The Substance of Style”. MovingImageSource. Museum of the Moving Image, 17 May 2012. Web. 2 June 2012.
Bottle Rocket. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Luke Wilson, Owen Wilson, and Robert Musgrave. Columbia Pictures, 1996. DVD.
The Royal Tenenbaums. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Gene Hackman, Anjelica Huston, Gwyneth Paltrow, Owen Wilson, Ben Stiller, Bill Murray, and Luke Wilson. The Criterion Collection, 2002. DVD.
Rushmore. Dir. Wes Anderson. Perf. Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray, and Olivia Williams. The Criterion Collection, 1998. DVD.
Links to my other Anderson // Salinger posts