White Noise, Noah Bombach

Don DeLillo’s ‘White Noise’ Remains Unfilmable

Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise shows what a movie can do, but mainly what fiction still does better.

White Noise
Noah Baumbach
30 December 2022

Early in White Noise—both Don DeLillo’s 1985 literary masterpiece and Noah Baumbach’s 2022 film adaptation—Professor Jack Gladney, founder of what he calls “Hitler studies”, is teaching his Advanced Nazism class. Whereas the novel describes “the impressionistic 80-minute documentary” Gladney edited for his class, the film version actually assembles film strips and images of rallies, crowds, and speeches. The viewer sees the spectacle and the fanaticism; the reader only hears it in their mind, briefly. So far, so good.

Jack’s lecture culminates in his declarations about death, which Baumbach pulls directly from the novel, like much of the dialogue. “All plots tend to move deathward,” Jack intones. “This is the nature of plots. Political plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot.” The scene ends. Jack’s students—and his surrogate students, the viewers—enraptured by actor Adam Driver’s black-robbed, charismatic near-sermon—are left to accept it. White Noise the film moves on.

White Noise, the novel, however, does not. We also hear what Jack thinks afterward. Jack turns insecure to himself and the reader: “Is this true? Why did I say it? What does it mean?” The viewer never reads this aside, the private counternarrative that contradicts the public performance. This absence of Jack’s frequently unreliable inner monologue, here and throughout the film, even with the novel’s dialogue, strips the experience of watching, as opposed to reading White Noise of its self-consciousness, its irony, its balance, and ultimately much of its meaning. These very attributes make DeLillo’s White Noise such a rich reading experience.    

At the risk of sounding as esoteric as Jack Gladney, I have spent several decades contemplating and teaching White Noise and DeLillo’s body of work. (DeLillo’s satire of academia turned out to be one of the reasons academics love it.) I’ve written journal articles, book chapters, a monograph (Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief), edited a collection of scholarly essays (Don DeLillo In Context), and served as the President of the Don DeLillo Society, which is a real thing.

Thus, I have spent the months leading up to Baumbach’s film anticipating how it would go about adapting this supposedly “unadaptable” novel, a term—with “unfilmable”—nearly omnipresent in reviews. What does it mean for a film to be unadaptable?

In the past, it may have meant White Noise, the book, is unfilmable technologically. Consider J.R.R. Tolkein’s The Lord of the Rings, which, animation aside, took nearly 50 years to go from page to screen. Even then, technology was only an aspect—the Hobbit movies, filmed later, are generally considered poorer. Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita comes to mind because of its subject matter, although it was adapted twice. Yet its difficulty in adaptation isn’t just its central taboo. Lolita, like the never-filmed Catcher in the Rye, Invisible Man (by Ralph Ellison, not HG Wells), and Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness, relies on a precise and original use of first-person narration, one that is inseparable from our perception of the story itself. White Noise is the same.

Before I saw Baumbach’s White Noise, then, my main concern was how the film could accommodate the juxtaposition between the novel’s hilariously offbeat conversations and scenes with first-person narrator Jack Gladney’s anxious yet deadpan voice. The answer is: it did not. White Noise, the film, has virtually no voiceover. As a result, it, and its characters, have no interior.

On the one hand, the decision to eschew narration makes sense. Voiceover in literary adaptation can be a cheap shortcut to unload exposition or resolve unwanted ambiguity. Director Ridley Scott famously removed Harrison Ford’s voiceover in his director’s cut of Blade Runner (theatrical version, 1982; director’s cut, 1992), which many viewers (including me) saw as an improvement. Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby (2013) revises F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first-person novel, placing Nick Carraway in a sanitarium, his narration turned into a conversation with his psychiatrist. This revision solves the perspective problem, but it arguably contradicts Nick’s character and possibly the novel’s point. Without its interiority, Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987), one of the most powerful, original novels ever written, in the hands of director Jonathan Demme (1998) becomes a decent, if convoluted, ghost story.        

Other adaptations, however, fare better. Fight Club (the 1996 novel by Chuck Palahniuk; the 1999 film directed by David Fincher) keeps the novel’s voice, making the final plot twist more effective while enriching it with visual effects and busy cinematography. The first season of Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale (2017) has the luxury of taking ten hours to capture and convey author Margaret Atwood’s terrifying transformation of America into Gilead and narrator Offred’s inner and outer torment. (The 1990 film directed by Volker Schlöndorff was far less successful.)  

In Baumbach’s White Noise, however, eliminating Jack’s narration renders the dialogue and action less pointed and less meaningful. In another scene from the novel and film’s first part, “Waves and Radiation”, Jack and his fourth (or fifth, depending on how one counts) wife, Babette, prepare for romance. The dialogue from the book remains mostly intact, featuring disagreements about the eroticism of the word “entered” and lines like Jack’s “As the male partner, I think it’s my responsibility to please” and Babette’s “I’m not sure whether that’s a sensitive, caring statement or a sexist remark.” The banter continues, and the scene concludes.

Once again, Jack’s thoughts from the novel are elided. Unlike the film’s implication of marital relations, the chapter ends with Jack and Babette nostalgically looking through old pictures. Jack seems to believe that he is open with Babette: “Love helps us develop an identity secure enough to allow it to be placed in another’s care and protection…. I have … spoken deep into the night about fathers, mothers, childhood, friendships, awakenings, old loves, old fears (except fear of death). No detail must be left out.”

Jack’s flowery romanticism and imagined transparency, however, conceal his most consuming thought, his fear of death, in a parenthetical aside. Jack, as well as, we will discover, Babette, keeps his preoccupation hidden. Ironic, given the scene’s supposed intimacy. All we get is the teasing.

White Noise, the film, opens with a lecture by Murray J. Siskind (Don Cheadle), Jack’s academic colleague and friend, about car crashes in American cinema. Like Jack’s lecture, Murray’s class includes film clips, here of the crashes themselves. As an opening, it potentially signals a shift in the medium. Like the novel’s heightened attention to how language works (and sometimes does not), the film could, in keeping, be a self-reflection about visual representation.

But it’s not. Most of the film is a near-stage-like reenactment of the novel’s lines. More importantly, in the novel, we never see or hear Murray’s lecture. He recounts it to Jack, who is incredulous, dubious, and maybe even jealous of Murray’s acumen. Yet again, we don’t get that side in the film. Instead, White Noise, the film, relies, as a film must, on what we can see. Murray’s line—“Look past the violence, Jack. There is a wonderful brimming spirit of innocence and fun”—becomes the film’s mantra rather than a troubling it-sounds-absurd-but-is-it-true? idea.

Hence, back to the problem of “unfilmable”. Characters rendered deliberately amorphous, subject to the reader’s imagination, can’t work in a medium that needs flesh-and-blood actors. DeLillo’s White Noise, in particular, relies on disembodied voices and media interruptions that barely register in the film. Although I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve read White Noise, I don’t have a fixed picture of the characters. That’s by design.

Whoever I imagined playing Jack (a bigger Tom Bosley, from Happy Days?), Adam Driver is not it. Jack is older, unathletic, a bland normie who uses Hitler both to seem greater but also to hide behind. “I am the false character that follows the name around,” Jack narrates of his absurd non-pseudonym, J.A.K. Gladney, a gag the film literally has to spell out for us. Actor John C. Reilly would have been a solid Jack, but he seldom snags leading roles.

Instead, we see Driver, at age 39, at least a decade too young and, hastily acquired beer belly to the contrary, still exuding vitality. He also can’t help but bring the force of his previous roles, from his villainous Kylo Ren in Star Wars to his bad boy Adam Slacker character on Girls. He’s somehow both too tough and too sweet to be Jack in White Noise, the film. Jack’s interest in Hitler is personal and passionate rather than impartially academic (which, we need to learn, it is not). Driver-as-Jack’s turn to violence seems inevitable, nearly physiological, rather than unlikely and ironic.   

Greta Gerwig, also 39, is similarly young for the part of Babette, and she lacks the size frequently described as central to her character. Despite the effort rightly put into her “important” hair, Gerwig’s Babette seems out of place. Only Don Cheadle’s Murray seems entirely convincing. He is exactly as Murray is described in DeLillo’s novel, with the obvious exception of race. In the novel, Murray is pointedly and explicitly Jewish (“I’m the Jew. What else would I be?”). His admiration for Jack’s “shrewd” invention of Hitler studies, with no commentary on its amorality, is yet another of the book’s innumerable ironies. In Baumbach’s film, this is lost on both characters.

Cheadle’s Murray, who innovates “Elvis studies”, takes on a new, less careerist, racial angle in the film, including a great line of dialogue not found in the novel. “All white people have a favorite Elvis song!,” Murray beams, despite the incongruity of his observation during a forced evacuation.

Baumbach’s prior films have revolved around struggling heterosexual marriages, as in The Squid and the Whale and Marriage Story. At first, I felt this preoccupation would be a strength since Jack and Babette’s what-turns-out-to-be-troubled marriage is at the center of White Noise. Instead, it became the main point, so much so that in the film, but not the novel, Babette reappears at the end so that she and Jack can reconcile over their accidental, bizarre bullet wounds. It’s a revision revealing Baumbach’s priority: his White Noise is another marriage story.

To keep the focus on the marriage—and the film at two and a quarter-hours—decisions needed to be made. Babette’s father—Jack’s father-in-law—is cut from the film, so Murray gives Jack the gun that must go off in the final scene, sadly transforming Murray from a devil’s advocate to the devil himself.

Jack’s father-in-law, and his fantastic monologue, are far from the only character and scene cut in White Noise, the film. There is no Orest, the age- and ethnically-ambiguous teen(?) who trains to sit in a room of venomous snakes. Jack’s son Heinrich (played by Sam Nivola) has a full head of hair but no contrarian ideas about rain. Steffie (played by May Nivola) never utters the potentially transcendent phrase, “Toyota Celica” – a model discontinued in 2006. Jack’s former wife, Tweedy and additional child, Bee, and their lines and scenes are gone. There is no school SIMUVAC simulation. Wilder does not cross the highway on his tricycle, and the magnificent sunsets get only the briefest glimpse.

Most troublingly, the Most Photographed Barn in White Noise, the novel, remains unphotographed in the film. Again, Jack’s narration—in this case, his pointed silence—serves to undercut Murray’s are-they-brilliant-or-are-they-pretentious-or-is-it-satirical? observations. The Barn serves as the metaphor for mediated reality that precedes and grounds the rest of the novel’s ideas. Would any film really show two people talking about a barn while others take pictures? Would such a scene be funny enough to watch as it is to read?  

White Noise, the novel, is a comedy, but not the same kind of comedy as the film. As much as I enjoyed hearing the dialogue I’ve read so many times spoken out loud and enacted, I feel that White Noise‘s dry, stylized language is better read than said. To keep the film version leaner still, Baumbach’s White Noise overlaps multiple dialogue scenes—creating white noise! This approach is indecipherability distracted from DeLillo’s hard, gem-like language. (Other writers like John Barth and Helene Cixous have attempted overlapping, simultaneous written language using columns. DeLillo never has.) At least the fantastical, day-glow supermarket looks and feels just right. I would expect no less for a budget of $100 million USD.

I am far from the first person who loved a book only to be disappointed by its film adaptation, and I will not be the last. Ultimately, what gets lost in Baumbach’s talky, compressed, screwball-comedy-into-National-Lampoon’s-comedy-into-absurdist-comedy is this: the richness of DeLillo’s novel. White Noise, the book, is About, in the capital-A sense of the word, so many things and so much more than the film can plumb. Life! Death! Reality! Language! Belief! Media! Family! Violence! Good and evil! History!

As I wrote in Don DeLillo: Balance at the Edge of Belief, maybe portentously, “the way it addresses the problem of what it means to be human when being human today seems fraught with peril.” In the end, I fear that White Noise, the film, might keep someone from reading a novel that has meant so much to me. As far as fears go, it’s no fear of death. But it still might keep me up at night.