- Peter Byrne
More White Noise
Aggiornamento: 5 feb
When we see “based on” or “from” or “after” in a movie’s titles we have learned to be ready for anything. The name of a work and its author could pass in tiny letters and a hardly perceptible flash. Who noticed that There Will Be Blood (2007) came from Upton Sinclair’s novel, Oil, or that The Magnificent Ambersons (1942) wasn’t Orson Welles’s story but from a novel by Booth Tarkington? On other occasions, when marketing strategy so decrees, book-title and author can fill the whole screen with a jolt to our viscera. Watch the trailer/preview of Gone with the Wind (1939) or of Lolita (1962) to see authors Margaret Mitchell and Vladimir Nabokov hailed and highlighted.
White Noise, the 2022 movie of Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel, kowtows outrageously to the book [reviewed here Sept.’22]. Respect extends to most of the dialogue which comes word for word from the novel. Noah Baumbach’s own script and direction follow almost every turn of the novel and give a hurried tick to each box of its content. Transcreation or transmutation are words much too windy for what Baumbach does, which is more like illustration.
That kind of fidelity poses a problem. A filmmaker can get away with it when adapting a short, linear-construed literary work. With a novel, however—in this case one of 325 pages—there’s a problem. Time in a novel isn’t like time in a movie. That’s why the director’s ticking of boxes had to be hurried and perfunctory. Even a novel covering only a year or two makes the reader feel that time is passing. It’s something a viewer can’t feel even when a flashback shows events taking place decades before or a storyline assures us that a young character will end grey-bearded and toothless a half-century hence.
The beginning of DeLillo’s novel acquaints us with Jack Gladney’s family life. The book is a satire on how Americans lived in the 1980s, and everyday routines, not action, are at first to the fore. We watch the outlines of four children each take shape. There are trips to the supermarket, talk around the dinner table and family sessions watching TV. The jobs of the breadwinner and his wife are looked into.
What’s satirised is how an excess of information flowing into their heads causes uncertainty and dread. The information is partial and bitty even when not outright mistaken. Rapidly changing technology affords no fixed foothold. To put this across, DeLillo shows us how facts and fiction get to the family. Gossip, rumour, school, advertising, TV slogans and snippets from higher education all make for a kind of white-noise hum in their ears. Like everyday life, it’s repetitive and monotonous, both of which imply time passing, something the novel was conceived three hundred years ago to portray. For all his fidelity to DeLillo, Baumbach can only nervously watch the clock. He has only 136 minutes.
The novel’s mockery shouldn’t allow the reader to hide behind laughter. DeLillo may be having a rambunctious look at the doings of a middle-class family. However, his overall subject—we mustn’t shudder—is death. The word itself thrives like a weed on his pages. Mortality haunts everyone and they can’t stop giving their take on it. Jack has his own:
“…[T]hat we are the highest form of life on earth and yet ineffably sad because we know what no other animal knows, that we must die.”
Action erupts in the novel’s middle. The family has to flee deadly pollution and embark on an on-the-road spell full of noise and colour amply described. A dramatic seed is planted that will sprout later. Jack’s wife Babette has kept silent about her pathological fear of death. She sought relief in Dylar, an illegal drug. Jack pries her secret from her and confesses that he too has an obsessive fear of death that is undermining his life. Dylar has failed to deaden the part of Babette’s brain that harbours death-fear. But Jack wants to see if it will work for him. There follows a scene out of a B-picture noir complete with gunplay and much blood. Jack engages with the sleazy drug promoter who, along the way, has cuckolded him. None of those involved die, which is the novelist’s final jab of irony. But the book’s last word is “dead”.
The movie’s attempt at duplication stumbles because the minutes allowed won’t permit putting everything in. The novel’s smooth changes of pace become thunder claps on a sunny day. The conversations about ideas are too weighty to be rushed. Baumbach proceeds at such a rapid pace we miss DeLillo’s points that the same Baumbach is determined to put across. His determination causes more difficulty when action speeds up. Action in words differs from filmed action emphasised with special effects hullabaloo. A car crash described in words doesn’t disturb the harmony of a narrative. Here it seems to come from a completely different movie, a hold-your-breath, noisy blockbuster.
Another difficulty arises when Jack tells Babette, “It’s time for a major dialogue. You know it, I know it. You’ll tell me all about Dylar.” Baumbach then stays faithful to DeLillo’s words. The movie abruptly changes pace. Headlong forward movement stops and we are treated to the couple’s full discussion. But the written words here spoken in a husband-wife dialogue seem stilted, stagey and unreal. They were fine on the page and should have remained there.
As a kind of afterthought that maybe complete fidelity to the novel is mistaken, Baumbach winds up with a five-minute musical in the supermarket we have visited earlier. Dozens of miming dancers move wildly through the isles of merchandise as music and a vocal number ring out. It’s an extravaganza that puts a thoroughly upbeat lid on DeLillo’s American casserole about fear of dying.
The adaptation of White Noise leads to a conclusion. Brief and direct stories are more successfully adapted. Novels are too complex, too dense and saturated with time—too big—for the purpose. However, there’s something more. If novels are to be adapted, it’s better to choose a mediocre rather than a good one. Then the scriptwriter and director can do what they please to it. When it’s an excellent novel, their respect freezes their creative juices. Noah Baumbach’s fidelity to the written words of White Noise has kept him from doing any serious transmuting of it into a freestanding movie.
(Premiered at the 79th Venice Film Festival of 2022, White Noise was released later in the year and since December 30 is available on Netflix.)