Turning an “unfilmable” book into a film is one thing; making it good is another. There have been attempts to turn Don DeLillo’s seminal 1985 postmodern novel White Noise into a movie for decades, each one stymied by its decidedly internal nature. Impressively, writer and director Noah Baumbach and his crew have managed something that decently embodies the vibe of the book. Unfortunately, turning a masterpiece of English literature into something merely decent is its own kind of failure.
White Noise is about the headspace where an individual’s existential anxiety meets the overwhelming psychic onslaught of contemporary society (the “white noise” of mass media, consumerism, and in general a culture as wide as an ocean but deep as a puddle). Jack Gladney (Adam Driver) is a university professor in a nameless midwestern town who increasingly suffers such malaise, especially after he is directly confronted with his own mortality during a mass evacuation forced by a chemical spill. So, too, does his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), who takes desperate measures to procure an experimental drug that can supposedly cure one’s fear of death. Her growing dependence on the drug and his mounting anxiety collide to endanger their marriage.
The qualities that make White Noise the book distinctive also challenge any attempt at translating it to cinema — it’s all in DeLillo’s offbeat and often deeply funny prose. The most successful adaptation of his work to date, David Cronenberg’s 2012 movie of Cosmopolis, reflects its source by concocting a pervasively uncanny atmosphere. The characters recite dialogue and often move in a slow, deliberate manner that heightens the sheer strangeness of what’s going on. Seeing the world from a DeLillo point of view can feel like brain trauma that’s somehow granted you more clarity.
Baumbach tries an unexpected but somewhat fruitful approach. He takes DeLillo’s dialogue and gives it a Robert Altman spin: actors deliver it at a quick pace, at times overlapping with each other. It’s a convincing, if rather literal, evocation of the title sensation. But it can also get in its own way, as the rapid recitation ruins some of the book’s best jokes. That Jack is a leader in the field of “Hitler studies” or that his son is playing correspondence course chess with an imprisoned convicted murderer should be major punchlines; instead they passed by my audience because of their offhand delivery.
The issue of reciting themes rather than deeply feeling them plagues the film. Characters voice their fear of death, but the movie induces none of it. The film recites verbatim dialogue from the novel describing a supermarket as the modern version of the Tibetan concept of “the transitional state between death and rebirth,” but nothing suggests this visually. The evacuation sequence shoots for a Spielberg-like sense of awe, which in a cannier exploration of the 1980s setting could make for sharp satire, but here comes off as less accomplished imitation.
One of the most famous passages of White Noise is a one-page description of an excursion to see “The most photographed barn in America.” Embodying the book’s ideas about cultural symbols replacing real things in the collective consciousness, a character observes that “Once you’ve seen the signs about the barn, it becomes impossible to see the barn …. We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.” How does one convey this cinematically? If I were in charge of this production, I would have filmmakers make this sequence as a proof of concept before they were allowed anywhere near the material. This film simply omits the barn.
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