‘White Noise’ Is A Solid Adaptation Of A Notoriously Difficult Book

Great books rarely make for great movies. It’s far more common that a pulpy, sort of trashy airport fiction-type book becomes a great movie, and a great book gets a flawed adaptation that everyone hates. Film doesn’t offer the same opportunities for embroidering and meta-narratives that novels do, and probably that’s why the slimmest, most straightforward, plot-based novels seem to make the best movies.

I say all this to establish the central difficulty for Noah Baumbach in adapting White Noise (in select theaters now, Netflix December 30th). People who love White Noise the book are probably going to hate it, and as someone who was a little lukewarm on the book and on Noah Baumbach in general I kind of loved it.

I think I first read, or attempted to read, Don DeLillo’s 1985 National Book Award-winner about 10 years ago. I acknowledged its brilliance almost immediately, got about two-thirds of the way through and then put it down without much guilt about not finishing. I felt like I appreciated the gesture without necessarily enjoying the process. I’m not always in the mood to consume challenging fiction, even when it’s sharp and insightful.

And White Noise, while invitingly hilarious in bursts, at least mildly qualified as challenging. It reads like Richard Russo (especially Straight Man, exactly the kind of not-particularly-challenging fiction I tend to like best) as filtered through Pynchon or Philip K. Dick, a sort of Catch-22 for the comfortable eighties intellectual. It depicts a shopping mall suburbia whose most salient feature is a kind of gauche comfort. Which makes an adaptation now sort of a curious endeavor, seeing as gauche comfort has largely been replaced by gauche precarity in the American zeitgeist. In the eighties we bemoaned the spiritual rot of shopping mall culture; in the 2020s we mourn the loss of it.

White Noise’s main character is Jack Gladney, a professor who has pioneered the field of “Hitler Studies,” chairing the department at the local “College On The Hill.” He’s in the midst of a sort of mid-life crisis, where he essentially comes to realize that inability to come to terms with death is the driving force behind the consumerist paradise in which he lives.

That could describe any number of navel-gazing late 20th-century novels written by New Yorkers named Jonathan, but DeLillo also had a Zucker Brother’s comedic timing and flair for absurdity. Meanwhile, all his characters sounded like New York novelists narrating their own lives. Two-hander scenes would stretch five or seven pages and played like two infomercial characters discussing existential dread over a Slap Chop.

The post-modern dialogue was part of what made White Noise brilliant, but for me, also what made it easier to put down. It was hard to read characters so emotionally detached from their own reality without detaching from it myself. If I was looking to be transported, White Noise often did the opposite, like being locked in a sensory deprivation tank with a cacophony of all my least enjoyable thoughts. It seemed like DeLillo “got” me, and I hated it.

That this adaptation comes from Noah Baumbach, a director known for making quite a few versions of exactly the kind of mid-life crisis stories White Noise seems designed to mock (especially his last one, Marriage Story), adds yet another layer of ironic detachment. Or… maybe it doesn’t. In fact, what if it does the opposite? Returning White Noise closer to the actual riff on suburban ennui it always was even as it mocked them?

Adam Driver, Baumbach’s muse of late, plays Jack Gladney, with Greta Gerwig (Baumbach’s partner) playing Gladney’s fourth wife, Babette. “I hope I die first,” she says while they’re in bed together, a conversation central to both the book and the movie. They each profess how much the other dying first would really crush them, and that they’d much rather be the first to go, but you can sense that their hearts aren’t really in it.

Baumbach has preserved DeLillo’s signature, florid-yet-wooden style of dialogue, and the movie’s major innovation is to sort of have the conversations overlap. Everyone — the Gladneys have a bunch of kids, all from different marriages except the youngest, Wilder — sort of spouting off about different things and occasionally going back and forth as it all blends together into a sort of, uh, white noise. Baumbach shoots it all in vibrant, Stranger Things-style saturation, with the gleaming new supermarket as the town’s shining showpiece/gathering place. Baumbach probably thinks he’s depicting Delillo’s morally bankrupt, shopping mall eighties, but he’s depicting our own nostalgia for shopping mall culture at least as much.

Eventually an industrial disaster, the “airborne toxic event” bumps the town off its comfortable, consumerist axis, and gives them all something to worry about beyond existential dread. The rub is that it doesn’t really work. Even the apocalypse is temporary, like everything else. Meanwhile, Babette is gulping down a mystery drug that makes her forgetful, which she refuses to admit to or acknowledge.

It doesn’t feel like Baumbach’s take on the material is especially inventive, though it does feel faithful, and maybe that’s enough. I might be the perfect audience for a White Noise adaptation, because whereas the book felt like something smart I didn’t have the energy to slog through, the movie feels like cheating on a homework assignment. The movie allows me to see contours of the story without drowning in the style.

And I like what I see. On the face of it, now seems a bad time to release a story about comfortable, middle-class existence, but that was part of the narrative of the book as well — that not even an airborne toxic event could knock a true narcissist out of his malaise. The movie even has a few tricks of its own, like Don Cheadle’s turn as Gladney’s friend/admirer Murray Suskind, who wants to “make Elvis Presley my Hitler.”

Cheadle steals every scene he’s in, and the professor scenes in general are easily White Noise‘s strongest — the moments in which the overlapping dialogue best works its magic and Baumbach’s occasionally gonzo casting choices (André 3000 as professor Elliot Lasher) truly sing.

“But wait, I thought you were supposed to brilliant,” Gladney asks a chemistry professor who can’t figure out a formula.

“I tell them they’re brilliant, you tell me I’m brilliant… what else are we supposed to say?” she asks.

The rub, of course, is that they’re all sort of grown up children, desperately glomming onto anyone who seems like they know the meaning of life, even while play acting as people who know the meaning of life themselves as a path to success and fame. They know deep down no one really has it figured out, and it’s a source of both opportunity and of dread. That all we have in the end is each other (or maybe no one) is sort of an old story, but also sort of the only story.

‘White Noise’ is in limited theaters now, and hits Netflix December 30th. Vince Mancini is on Twitter. You can read more of his reviews here.