Some books just work as books. Though the possibility of transformative or merely intelligent adaptation always exists, there are inherent differences between the novel and the film. A key distinction is in what can come naturally to one form and not to the other; in regard to novels, an aspect is interiority. Prose can so effortlessly portray interiority whereas film is much better at visual ambiguity. The inherently externalised lens of the camera places the viewer at a distance; prose on a page has an immediacy that cuts through this. The best adaptations find a way around this, Greta Gerwig’s (who incidentally stars in White Noise) Little Women (2019) reshapes the chronology of the source text, and adopts a clever framing that allows the essence of the text to be presented rather than just its content (a necessary process as a book comes to life when read and interpreted).
Why this is relevant is that Noah Baumbach’s White Noise fundamentally fails as an adaptation. Those already familiar with the book will have an inherently tarnished view of this version of Don DeLillo’s post-modern classic. If you like that book, prepare for disappointment (and if you don’t, you’re still not going to like this): Baumbach has not truly put it on screen, its specificities are replaced with softened edges; the extended meditation on death and the human condition is absent – also gone is the evocation of normalised dystopia as a reflection of the anxieties of the neo-liberal sprawl of the 1980s. This latter point is very interesting, as the novel White Noise (1985) is forever stuck in time. The novel arises from specific societal anxieties and inherently reflects a period; though the film is set in the 1980s, it cannot not be watched from the present and exists merely as representation. The film is a retrospective glance as opposed to the direct stare that is the novel, it being adapted (and therefore written) in the 2020s dilutes it. The novel is a time capsule that will forever be true to its original context. Interestingly, the adaptation focuses more on the social satire elements (the mocking of consumerism) from the novel and much less on its central exploration of death and the human condition. The timeless aspects are replaced with a more dated and less relevant focus, placing White Noise in a ‘comfortable past’ that the novel was never truly in. It feels asinine and shallow in a way the book never was, as rapid changes in social structures have moved the consumerist conversation on and we are so used to a normalised barrage of satire.
Now, if you are not familiar with the book, your mileage with Baumbach’s adaptation will be different. However, its comparisons with the source text are a useful way of highlighting the film’s inherent flaws, as they are filmic failures and not just things lost in translation. White Noise is a bad adaptation that is focused on the act of adaptation, as opposed to transformation. This is not a ‘take’ on the text, nor is it a revitalisation, the film is very faithful to the literal content of the book (even if it never translates its essence or impact). Aside from an ending movement (the final twenty minutes or so) that is pointlessly divergent from the novel – and is just lesser as well as clumsy – the content of White Noise is cherry picked directly from DeLillo’s novel. The structure, however, is not – not really, anyway. Moments happen slightly out of time, or are transplanted into different contexts (or lightly abridged in reductive ways). The surface of the novel is here, though, with dialogue being exact. The thing is, the novel is about interiority and how that juxtaposes with surface. You see, the surface of these characters is obnoxious and grating, a performative post-modernism that pushes beyond eccentric into irritating. In the novel, we are stuck in a character’s head and become deeply aware of their insecurities and anxieties, how the way they live (externally) differs from the way they are (internally).
The novel is stunning. It is beautifully written, deeply humorous and also very profound. These aspects are often found in the asides, though, and how these aspects intersect with the dialogue. It feels like only half the text is here and that half feels inadequate. The film’s approach to shuffling through the novel also reminds the viewer of how immaculately structured the novel is. It feels like a book in which nothing happens but the accumulation of carefully ordered incidents really builds to something. There is a clever thematic arc to the book that justifies its content: its eccentric ephemera is made to be meaningful. The film is a greatest hits rather than an album: a sporadic and disjointed work that gives you what you think you want but robs it of the context that gave it meaning. It also, to be blunt, just butchers parts of the text. Adam Driver’s Jack (or J. A. K.) Gladney is not the character he should be. This character is the novel, our internal view cementing the text’s meaning; however, this adapted version seems distinct from that inner layer. Driver’s dialogue comes out stagey and leaden, the complexity of character that exists in the novel not even attempted on screen. Conflict and anxiety is not part of the performance, only surface is engaged with and even this surface feels off. The only time the film finds a tone close to the right one is in tertiary characters, here it engages with the frenetic and hysterical feel of the novel. Outside of that, it takes on the style of a light pastiche. Danny Elfman’s music makes it feel kitsch, parodic even; it is a kooky and quirky trifle based on a humourous but also deeply profound text. There is a sense of paranoia, of social anxiety and normalised dystopia that pervades every page of the novel; the wider presentation in the film is utterly divorced from this.
Quite simply, Baumbach’s White Noise does not work. It is this strange mix of being overly referential to the novel while also not adapting the right parts, or truly capturing its essence and impact. It has the feel of skimming through the book, of somebody reciting their favourite passages to you and just expecting you to love them – forgetting that context is everything. From this, the weaknesses of the film are apparent: it is listless, thematically empty and overly obsessed with surface. Its affectations aren’t symptoms of social decay or stagnation (like they are in the book) they are merely affectations, and become grating due to this. It is a bold book to take on, and distinct moments work in this film. However, those moments only ever feel like lesser versions of a greater text. The uninitiated will find joy in some of the pure inventiveness, just know that this joy belongs to DeLillo and you’d be better served going to the source.