It would be difficult to avoid the media blitz for Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of Don DeLillo’s White Noise, advance promotion that included a lengthy New York Times Magazine essay on the director and the making of the movie. It has received numerous reviews, most of them positive according to Metacritic. The movie is more substantial than what Netflix generally produces, but I consider Baumbach’s White Noise a failed adaptation. And not just failed but a betrayal of literary sensibility by cinema commercialism—by a director who could and should have done better with a novel he has said he reveres. Given the attention the director and the movie have received, I assume people who haven’t read the novel may well be interested in seeing the movie. I can’t stop you. It’s for those who have read and admire the novel that I write.
In A. O. Scott’s New York Times review, he assures readers that “Very little has been added, and what’s been taken out will be missed only by fanatics,” what Scott calls “DeLillo-heads.” You may find me—someone who has written about the novel in the past—one of the “fanatics,” but my primary complaint with Baumbach’s adaption is not with what he has excluded but with his more than “little” additions that do a disservice to the novel that won the National Book Award in 1985, is now included in the Penguin Great Books of the Twentith Century series, and is taught in many university classrooms.
A little personal history may begin to explain why I think the movie is a maladaptation. For a few months in 1981, my wife, three children, and I lived in an Athens, Greece, apartment from which we could look down onto DeLillo’s back balcony. I had come to Athens in 1979 to interview DeLillo and was now back as a visiting professor at the University of Athens. DeLillo was in the city because his wife was an executive at CitiBank. He was very generous to the newcomers, taking us out to a favorite taverna, inviting all of us to his home for dinner. Not having children, he seemed fascinated by the interplay between my two sons and daughter, as well as their banter with verbally permissive parents who allowed just about anything to be said. After DeLillo returned to the United States in early 1982 and published White Noise three years later, my daughter said he had used bits of LeClair conversation in the novel. In the terms of this essay, DeLillo had adapted real life to his fiction.
I’m not so DeLillo-headed that I believe our walks in Athens—the author of novels about subcultures, the professor whose dissertation about death was entitled “Final Words”—are some precursor of the novel’s peripatetic dialogues between Murray Jay Siskind (analyst of popular culture including Elvis) and Jack Gladney (death-obsessed professor of Hitler Studies in the Midwest). What I suggest with this bit of history is that, for all its satire, White Noise the novel is based in real-life observations, not (obviously) just of my children but of the America to which DeLillo was resensitized after living in Greece for three years. The first thing he wrote to me about was the scale of the supermarkets in the United States—the supermarkets that became central in the novel. For the first time, he was living in a small town—Bronxville—where he had ample opportunity to observe American collegiate life at Sarah Lawrence. He was like the proverbial Martian noticing everything about planet America.
White Noise is often called a postmodern novel, but I think that’s a mistake if “postmodern” means formally or stylistically experimental, as for example the work of Gaddis and Pynchon, writers that DeLillo admires. White Noise has postmodern themes, but it’s essentially a realistic comic novel, more late absurdist than early postmodernist. It’s from DeLillo’s close and continual observations of people and places, the observations of a recent arrival in a former home, that understanding of and attachment to his admittedly eccentric characters develop in the novel. But in much of the movie, the novel’s quotidian foundation is absent or overwhelmed by Baumbach’s additions, and DeLillo’s characters are emptied out and trapped in the commercial tropes with which Baumbach frames them.
Baumbach’s challenge was to adapt the novel’s literary language to cinematic language. The novel is in Jack’s first-person narration, describing setting, recording dialogue, reporting action, and repeatedly meditating on mortality, at first abstractly, then concretely after he is poisoned by an Airborne Toxic Event. Jack is an often unreliable narrator, but his consciousness is inescapable—foundational like the novel’s observations. The talk that Jack reports in first third of the book slowly establishes the basic happiness and apparent security of the Gladney family of six while also communicating a hum of anxiety. In the first third of the movie, Baumbach disrupts the novel’s realism by inserting a scene that might occur in a haunted house film. The director has the death-fearing Jack dream that he is sleeping beside a ghost-like, threatening figure that walks around the room. What is understated in the novel’s language is made literal and melodramatic in the movie’s images as Baumbach departs from his naturalistic technique in another film about an academic, The Squid and the Whale, to work in the style of Jordan Peele.
Near the end of The Names, the novel set in Greece that preceded White Noise, DeLillo’s protagonist and narrator visits the Parthenon and hears ”one language after another, rich, harsh, mysterious, strong. This is what we bring to the temple, not prayer or chant or slaughtered rams. Our offering is language.” This is DeLillo’s offering to the novel form, his stylistic signature of exact concreteness and pregnant abstraction in shoals of playful dialogue. As Scott and other reviewers have noted, the movie does include slices of language directly quoted from the novel, but Baumbach doesn’t really trust the book’s words to hold moviegoers’ attention. This distrust is signaled, one realizes belatedly, by the first scene of the movie. Baumbach has moved Murray’s tour-de-force lecture on car-crash movies from later in the novel’s first part to function as a prologue. Unlike the novel, the movie includes film clips to illustrate Murray’s praise of American filmmakers’ arranging ever more ingenious car crashes. The prologue is a promise, for part two has several auto accidents, one of which may meet Murray’s criterion of originality. The prologue is also a significant distortion of the novel that begins with precise observations of students returning to College on the Hill in automobiles stuffed with consumer products, the things that are so much the subjects of the novel. Jack summarizes the tone and pace of part one: “may the days be aimless. Let the seasons drift. Do not advance the action according to a plan.” But it’s “Action” the director says in movies about directors, and it’s action that Baumbach adds wherever he can in his White Noise.
In part two of the novel, about the Gladneys’ flight from the Airborne Toxic Event, DeLillo supplies plenty of action. Baumbach uses the dramatic scenes present in the book and exaggerates them in what reviewers have called Spielbergian fashion. First, though, is another action addition: Shots of a drunken driver of a trailer truck containing toxic chemicals intercut with shots of a speeding train, an unnecessary bit for the sake of some old-movie “suspense.” Later we get the “promised” car crashes, and an auto chase scene. Desperate to vacate what had been a refuge from the toxic cloud, the novel’s Gladney drives his station wagon and family through the woods and, in one sentence, fords a creek. In the movie, the car lands in a river and for more than a minute of screen time floats helplessly toward what might be a waterfall. When Murray addresses students about Elvis, Murray says Elvis “fulfilled the terms of the contract” for the performer: “Excess.” Baumbach follows the example of Elvis, and in so doing suggests that the director can exceed and out-perform the novelist: “Didn’t imagine this, did you?” In fact, floating toward a waterfall is almost as clichéd as a damsel on railroad tracks. The effect of scenes such as this is to transfer attention from the characters to the director’s supposed ingenuity, the splash he wants to make—as if DeLillo’s novel needed special effects.
With the haunted house episode in part one and the auto escape in part two, the movie begins to feel like a meta-movie, one that foregrounds the conventions of genre movie-making and the clever director’s manipulation of them. The essentially realistic novel begins to resemble a self-referring postmodern film, something Charlie Kaufman might write or direct. To the scene in which Jack and Murray do their Hitler and Elvis schtick Baumbach adds a cameraman shooting both, a reminder, if needed, that we are watching a movie. Baumbach might say that the characters are so media saturated that they respond to real-life events as if they, the characters, were in convention-bound movies. Something similar—the outsize effect of media—is, of course, a theme in the novel, but when literalized in cinematic “language” the meta-dimension diminishes the viewer’s emotional attachment to the characters, a response that the novel keeps in tension with its verbal comedy and intellectual satire. Scott sums up the problem Baumbach’s interventions cause. After praising many features of the movie, Scott ends his review with “I wish I could believe in it.”
Belief in the reality of the characters is the basis for understanding and possibly accepting their desperate actions in part three, where Baumbach’s exaggerations and additions are even more egregious. Now fearing a more imminent death from exposure to the toxic cloud, Jack needs the mysterious tablets that his wife Babette has been ingesting in an attempt to calm her own more generalized but still debilitating fear of dying. Because Baumbach doesn’t give much attention earlier to the characters’ psychology, this fear—influenced, DeLillo has said, by Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death—may seem to be a McGuffin to moviegoers. Mortality is far from a mere plot device in DeLillo’s profound existential novel, so McGuffining death is probably the most serious—and evasive—defect in Baumbach’s adaptation. He does attempt to establish strong motivation when Babette, in a scene shot straight-forwardly and at length, explains to Jack why she needed Dylar tablets and why she traded sex for them. But to someone who has read the novel and, perhaps, to moviegoers who haven’t, this one psychologically intense scene may seem belated and insufficient, a relatively quick preparation for the film noir action that follows.
In both novel and movie, Jack decides to shoot Willie Mink, the purveyor of Dylar. Jack drives at night to the run-down motel where Babette met Mink, now impaired by ingesting handfuls of Dylar. The novel spends many pages on the content of Jack’s plotting consciousness, which Baumbach doesn’t access, and on the babbling of Mink, which Baumbach cuts short to get to the action. Since one of the effects of Dylar is to make a verbal statement seem like an actual event, Jack tortures Mink with “plunging aircraft.” Language causing dramatic effect—it’s an idea that Baumbach can’t believe in. Jack shoots Mink. As Jack is putting the gun in Mink’s hand to suggest suicide, he shoots Jack—as in the novel—and Babette who has followed Jack to the motel and is standing behind him—in the movie but not in the novel. This addition of Babette to the motel scene allows Baumbach to wholly invent a cheesy hand-holding scene after the literally and figuratively wounded—but now reunited—couple take Mink to a hospital. There, Mink is placed on a gurney between Jack and Babette. Then this man who has come between the couple in their marriage is slid forward, allowing Jack and Babette to hold hands. If anything is anathema to DeLillo, it’s sentimentality. Baumbach’s imposed happy ending demonstrates utter disrespect of DeLillo’s sensibility. Baumbach plays down death, plays up love.
The novel has scenes that could be more ambiguous, unsentimental “endings” after Jack leaves the hospital—the Gladneys’ appreciation of glorious sunsets, a miracle tricycle ride by the family’s youngest child. These Baumbach omits when choosing to end the movie in the supermarket, which figures throughout most of the novel and the movie as a place of solace through consumption. In the novel’s very last scene, however, shoppers wander the supermarket aisles, confused by the new placement of the consumer goods from which Jack took comfort: “They walk in a fragmented trance, stop and go, clusters of well-dressed figures frozen in the aisles, trying to figure out the pattern, discern the underlying logic.” The movie ends very differently. From a realistic take of the Gladneys shopping, Baumbach segues into and dollies back from a long dance scene in which major characters, minor figures, and others cavort—action, action, action–in the supermarket aisles as the credits roll. The dance could be a heavy-handed dance-of-death satire of the American consumerism that DeLillo critiques throughout the novel, but the dance is more likely a light-hearted extension of the feel-good personal “ending”—Jack and Babette holding hands—that Baumbach has imposed on DeLillo’s novel. In an interview, Baumbach calls the dance scene a “happiness pill,” an unfortunate but revealing reminder of Dylar.
When I heard that Baumbach would be directing White Noise, I worried that he wasn’t the person for the job. He could do the family material and maybe even the apocalyptic material, but I feared he wasn’t courageous enough to deliver death and end on DeLillo’s downbeat note. He wasn’t. Many film critics thought the novel was unadaptable. Baumbach proves them wrong with two fundamental adaptations: to the large budget he received from Netflix and to the audience he needed to justify that budget. His solution to the conjoined money issues was to graft commercial movie conventions on the successful—but still highly literary—novel, conventions that turn DeLillo’s characters into figures familiar to Netflix audiences, Adam Driver as the dopey dad, Gretta Gerwig as the ditzy mom. Driver has a paunch and Gerwig has cascading curls, but the actors don’t disappear into the characters DeLillo created because Baumbach’s actors are not so much characters as performers in his self-conscious show. An early example: Baumbach has Driver use his professorial black robes to play an angel of death during his lecture face-off with Murray, another addition by the director who wants to use the novel’s face-off scene but needs physical drama beyond the linguistic conflict. In his role as dark angel, Jack chants “Death, death, death,” the kind of melodramatic excess of which DeLillo is not and would not be guilty.
Baumbach’s additions I can understand—if not accept—as an art house director’s compromises with commercial filmmaking. Another change in the novel I haven’t mentioned, though present from the movie’s first scene to the last, is more difficult to understand. It is Baumbach’s casting the Black actor Don Cheadle as Murray Jay Siskind who explicitly identifies himself as Jewish in the novel. If the casting is Baumbach’s nod to the demands of woke cinema, it’s unfortunate because making Murray Black takes away from a sometimes overlooked but important cultural theme of the novel. The “white” in White Noise doesn’t just exist for the technical term, the novel’s documentation of chaotic communication. “You are very white,” the racially and ethnically ambiguous Willie Mink tells Jack after addressing him twice as “white man.” Jack and Babette are white people with psychological and existential anxieties, but at the beginning of the novel the Gladneys have faith in the power of their massive entitlements. As the tenured professor Jack explains to his children, a toxic cloud doesn’t affect homeowners like them: “These things happen to poor people who live in exposed areas.” Economically capable of easing anxiety through consumption, the Gladneys represent a smug upper middle-class white culture in America. By contrast, the only person identified as Black in the novel is prepared for something like the Airborne Toxic Event. Jack marvels that “stupendous events seemed matter-of-fact to him, self-evident, reasonable, imminent, true.”
In the novel and the movie, Murray is the Mephistophelean agent. In both, he initially seems a harmless crank with his left-field analyses of popular culture and his awkward erotic interest in Babette, but when Jack is infected Murray plays to Jack’s interest in Nazism and encourages him to be a killer as a way to “solve” his fear of death. In the movie, Murray also gives Jack the gun he can use to be a killer and allows Jack to borrow his car to find Mink. These are Baumbach additions. It is Babette’s father—a stereotypical “white-haired” white man from an earlier time, a kind of rambling frontiersman—who gives Jack the gun, and Jack steals a car from a neighbor. DeLillo traces white Jack’s violence back through Murray and Babette’s father, back to American and European history. White noise is the sound of a gun. A Black Murray could be a trickster figure undermining white cultural entitlement, but he is not that in the novel. To cast a Black actor as Murray has the (probably) unintended consequence of engaging in a racial stereotype—the feared Black man with a gun. As Marco Roth points out in one of the smartest reviews of the movie (in Tablet), Baumbach casts Murray as Black while preserving his Jewishness, a compromise within a compromise that may stand for the movie as a whole: Baumbach’s compromise with commercial cinema to adapt what was considered an unadaptable novel.
Right about now, you may wonder if I really am a DeLillo-head. So what if Baumbach exploits some commercial features to make his big-screen and prestige streaming feature? Seven years ago I published in these pages an essay entitled “How to Exploit a Dead Writer,” a commentary on the movie The End of the Tour about the life of David Foster Wallace, a movie that coincidentally, I guess, ends with a “happiness pill” dance scene. DeLillo is alive and is not being exploited by Baumbach’s movie. DeLillo presumably was paid for the rights to the movie and, presumably again, ceded any control over the screenplay and film. Movie audiences are not being exploited. They can read reviews and decide whether or not to pay the price of admission. The Saturday night I saw the movie four other people did so in a room that could have seated a hundred. Literature in general is not being exploited, for it’s a truism that adaptations don’t usually live up to the novels they piggyback—though White Noise may be a special case since it’s language itself (rather than its plot) that is downgraded in the movie. It seems, then, that I’m the one being exploited, my love of DeLillo’s novel. Of course, I would want to see the film, just as I wanted to see David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis (which had the courage of the novelist’s convictions and style). But after watching White Noise, how will I be able to read the novel yet again without the interference of Baumbach’s maladaptation? Maybe I should campaign for a class action of White Noise lovers. Perhaps there is a tablet, a Dylar that actually works, that would make me forget Baumbach’s movie as the Gladneys wanted to forget death. If you admire or love the novel, see the film at your peril. I regret watching it, but at least I have the solace of warning you.
Tom LeClair is the author of four critical books, eight novels, and hundreds of reviews and essays in national periodicals.
This post may contain affiliate links.