The streaming era’s mining of IP has meant that a lot of books considered ‘unfilmable’ by fans are now being adapted, and inventively so. Damon Lindelof’s miniseries Watchmen, based on the eponymous graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons, is a case in point, as is Netflix’s recent Sandman series. After Alejandro Jodorowsky’s ill-fated adaptation in the 1980s, people considered Frank Herbert’s Dune novels to be similarly incompatible with the movies, but Denis Villeneuve’s film was a big-screen spectacle like few others in recent times. We can now add Noah Baumbach’s film White Noise (released last week on Netflix) to this list.
The film is based on Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel of the same name, a defining work of American postmodernism and one of the most analysed and dissected works of 20th century literature. Most of the book (and indeed, the film, for this is a largely faithful adaptation) follows Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), a middle-aged, twice-divorced professor of ‘Hitler Studies’ living in an unnamed university town with his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) and their children. After an ‘airborne toxic event’ threatens to amplify Jack and Babette’s already crippling fear of death, the two must confront their respective insecurities — as well as the preoccupations of 80s America; mind-numbing consumerism, media saturation, guns, prescription drugs and violence.
Because of its tonal and thematic complexities, its oddball dialogue (a mixture of academic satire and existential terror) and its resistance to traditional plot progression, adapting White Noise was always going to be a formidable challenge. Luckily, Baumbach is up to the challenge, at least for the first half of the film. There are two things Baumbach does that work really well. One, he takes some of the most dialogue-heavy sections of the novel and leaves them virtually untouched in the film. For example, the first section of both novel and film is called ‘Waves and Radiation’, named by Jack Gladney’s colleague Murray Siskind (Don Cheadle, excellent), and this section has been adapted with few changes from the original, right down to Siskind meeting Jack and Babette at the supermarket and him calling Babette’s hair “important”, prompting Jack to say, “I think I know what you mean”.
Baumbach also understands the true pulse of White Noise—the quest to cheat death leads, inevitably, to non-secular avenues like God, or Al Pacino disguised as a lawyer disguised as Mephistopheles. But, as DeLillo’s classic text shows us, upwardly mobile America replaced its church aisles with supermarket aisles. Sunday church was now Friday night television, the whole family gathering around the TV like people huddling around the fireplace, a perennial source of light and heat. Baumbach strips down the novel to focus on these expressions of, let us say ‘secular religiosity’, of ritual (even the very first conversation we see Jack and Babette having is about the ritual of undergrads returning to the campus, their belongings lined up in a massive row of wagons).
As a text, White Noise became a favourite of literary scholars, especially those studying postmodernism, because of its high degree of self-awareness. Baumbach’s film incorporates this element with strategic bursts of classroom activity, where Gladney’s sermons-on-the-mount also function as the film telling you, the audience, how to consume the story you’re consuming. Here, for example, is Gladney talking to his students about how all plots “move deathward”; this can just as easily be read as a commentary on the novel’s (and film’s) unusual structure: “All plots tend to move deathward. This is the nature of plots. Political plots, terrorist plots, lovers’ plots, narrative plots, plots that are part of children’s games. We edge nearer death every time we plot. It is like a contract that all must sign, the plotters as well as those who are the targets of the plot.”
Where White Noise (the film) falls off the rails is the story’s highly symbolic second half, which is based rather heavily on Jean Baudrillard’s theories, especially Simulacra and Simulation (1981), which examines the relationship between reality, symbols and how society processes the difference between the two (or how it fails to process said difference, on occasion). When Gladney talks to a government official about their plans to tackle the ‘airborne toxic event’ –a cloud of chemical waste hovering over the town—the official in question admits that even as the government response is unfolding, they’re also treating this as a simulation, so that better response protocols can be established. You know, for next time. When both Jack and Babette become enamoured of an experimental drug called Dylar (that treats their fear of death), they realise that one of the symptoms of Dylar is the inability to differentiate between words and things. In the film’s climax, Jack yells “a collapsing airplane” in front of an addict, making the other man scream and cower in fear.
Driver and co. do their best with these extremely tricky concepts. But Baumbach was always fighting a losing battle here. The film’s last 30-40 minutes tell us a highly encoded, symbol-drenched story, the kind that’s easier to swallow on the page rather than depictions with any degree of ‘realism’.
But when it does work, the film is a small miracle, especially considering so few mainstream directors are allowed to take big artistic swings these days. Driver has now played several characters striving to lead a life of the mind — there was the shy, working-class poet in Paterson, the self-centred playwright from Baumbach’s own Marriage Story and now Jack Gladney. These are men from very different socio-economic backgrounds and they have vastly different levels of pretension. Driver just has the knack of knowing when to turn the vulnerability tap on, and how, and how much.
In my favourite scene, Gladney is talking to his students about how and why Hitler drew the kind of frenzied crowds that he did—what explained the crowds’ passion, their single-minded devotion to Hitler? The answer, as it always is with this story, is the fear of death.
“Processions, songs, speeches, dialogues with the dead, recitations of the names of the dead. They were there to see pyres and flaming wheels, thousands of flags dipped in salute, thousands of uniformed mourners. There were ranks and squadrons, elaborate backdrops, blood banners and black dress uniforms. Crowds came to form a shield against their own dying. To become a crowd is to keep out death. To break off from the crowd is to risk dying alone. Crowds came for this reason above all others. They were there to be a crowd.”
Driver is staggeringly good here. From a socially awkward professor, Gladney transforms into a vaudeville performer here, mimicking Nazi soldiers, modulating his voice like a Shakespeare veteran. And Baumbach’s camera lurches and veers, it hovers vertiginously just above Driver’s eyeline, making him somehow both taller and feebler, reflecting both death and man’s doomed attempts to keep it at bay.
It’s just waves and radiation, as DeLillo would say, but in the skilled hands of Baumbach and Driver, it’s stunning cinema.