White Noise Stayed True to the Book. That Might Be Why It’s Such a Mediocre Film.
Anyone adapting a movie from a book faces a dilemma: stay true to the book and potentially alienate a wider audience — or diverge from the text and leave an angry mob of bookish fans in your wake.
Admittedly, Noah Baumbach’s screen adaptation of Don Delillo’s White Noise stays relatively true to the novel. And though it pains me to say it — as someone who loves the book — that may be why the movie falls flat.
The film opens much like the novel. We’re introduced to Adam Driver’s Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler Studies at the local college, and his wife, Babette, played by Greta Gerwig. A whirlwind scene in their kitchen that captures some of the book’s charm introduces the kids: Denise, Steffie, Heinrich, and Wilder.
We also get a glimpse of Babette’s secret pills — the mystery of which will propel most of the plot, such as it is.
Prior to Baumbach’s version, White Noise had been widely regarded as an unfilmable book. So, despite winning the National Book Award in 1985 and developing a cult fan base, White Noise remained unadapted until Baumbach’s treatment.
The reasons for the nearly four decade gap between novel and film debuts are obvious to anyone who’s read the book. There’s the meandering plot that pleasantly disappears for long stretches of the book. There are the wry examinations of academia, family life, death, and image and meaning that need a novel’s depth to sustain them. Then there’s the dialogue.
Oh, the dialogue.
In the book, the stilted and odd phrasing the characters throw at each other somehow become part of the novel’s unique style. Iconic lines like, “This is the point of Babette,” work in the book because the world within the novel can sustain that type of speech. Delillo can rely on the reader’s imagination to expand and encompass a fictional world where people say things like, “The whole point of Babette is that she speaks to me, she reveals and confides.”
The problem is, this isn’t how real people talk. It’s not even a recognizable variation of how real people talk, like you’d find in a period piece. And when the audience doesn’t get to imagine the delivery and the world and…