Book/Movie Recommendation: White Noise
Wri. Don DeLillo, 1985 / Dir. Noah Baumbach, 2022
I don't write recommendations with the mindset of providing a critical review or seeking important works to write about. Rather these recommendation posts reflect moments I finished something and felt driven to tell the world about it!
I only recommend things I'm excited about and eager for you to experience.
I love Don DeLillo’s White Noise, it’s somewhere floating around one of my favorite novels. When I heard the announcement that Netflix was taking on the adaptation, I wasn’t too keen, but when I heard Noah Baumbach was going to direct it, I got excited. And with that, here’s the thing:
I don’t much enjoy Baumbach’s movies. But I knew he was the right person for this. And he ended up exceeding my expectations by, surprisingly, leaning into the visual opportunities of the book to create a whole world instead of keeping it small and hermetic like most of his other movies I’ve seen. And with that, let me explain.
Don DeLillo’s White Noise is a hilarious riff on American, particularly white American1, college town bubble mix of consumerism and academia, two forms of sheltered living that when combined, create a potent disengagement from reality, one so toxic it starts to infect the air itself in the form of an Airborne Toxic Event.2
The underlying joke of White Noise is that all the characters are swimming in information, facts, knowledge, research, studies, history, philosophy, and every sort of academic episteme, and yet they never know a single thing for sure and most of the time aren’t even clear if anything is really happening.
As such it’s extremely literary in the sense that it’s a novel made out of characters spouting words at each other desperately clinging to the need for the words to be meaningful, and yet the more they talk the less they mean and the less effective the words are at holding meaning. It’s built out of long cross-dialogues of families debating misremembered facts, professors competing for new vistas in academic overanalysis, and the main character, Jack Gladney, being surprised to learn he doesn’t know what’s going on most of the time.
And underlying all of it is the fact that every character is clinging to this white noise to drown out their deepset, unavoidable fear of death.
You’ve met these people, probably had dinner with them. Gladney is a pre-eminent professor in Hitler studies who doesn’t speak German. In seeking out one of the most significant and traumatic events in world history, Gladney trivializes it by using it to feel like his life is meaningful and important. That’s just where the novel starts, before it gets weird.
It’s funny but not in a way that makes you laugh out loud, but groan and roll your eyes.
The book is a terrible idea to adapt into a movie.
I’ve already said it in other ways, but let me be clear: White Noise is a book full of people talking about things they don’t know anything about while not being quite sure if anything happening around them is actually happening.
How do you visualize that?
You don’t. You take the pretentiousness of the characters and the root of their absurdity, and then you build a world around them that justifies it. Baumbach started his career with these sorts of people.3 He then leans into the absurdist humor for all its worth and makes a delectable 1980s Americana surrealist landscape.
White Noise the movie is haha out-loud funny. The dialog is screwball, some scenes are actually slapstick, but middle-aged dad bod slapstick rather than silent clown slapstick. The academics aren’t just pompous, now they’re straight up performance art.
There’s differences between the movie and book that are likely to raise the hackles of some people, but those people are the type of people the book makes fun of, so screw them. The one big thing I was hoping Baumbach would pull off that he went the other way with is the fact that the Airborne Toxic Event of the book has no known origins and it isn’t clear when it passes. The Airborne Toxic Event of the movie is very clearly a thing that actually exists and that the characters and audience see and to some degree interact with.
I am not that precious about adaptations. Baumbach makes up for it with a far better realization of the third act and ridiculously entertaining character acting.
What my recommendation is:
Read the book. See the movie.
Can’t do both? Do whichever medium you prefer. It’s fine to see the movie without reading the book or to read the book without seeing the movie.
Which one should you do first? Doesn’t matter. They’re different enough and similar enough that you’ll recognize how they relate to each other while doing their own thing.
Normally I find the first medium I experience a story in is the one I prefer, so if I read the book first I prefer the book (most situations) or if I saw the movie first I prefer the movie (The Shining, American Psycho). White Noise joins Cloud Atlas as a rare one I don’t have that preference.
The book is short enough it actually may not take a major reader longer than the movie to experience, either.
So, just do both, because they’re both great.
It’s in the title. I actually did think this was one case where the movie would have benefitted from an all-white cast but it’s still a good nose thumbing at Americana and the fact is Don Cheadle is a precious gem, so that’s one joke I’m willing to let go.
By the way, there’s a cool indie band named The Airborne Toxic Event after this novel that I can also recommend. So this could stand as a book, movie, AND music recommendation post!
The Squid and the Whale, which is basically White Noise the book except a serious drama about Baumbach’s relationship to his father.