A film adaptation of Don DeLillo’s great post-modern novel has been in the works for years. Men In Black’s Barry Sonnenfeld, The Simpsons’ James L. Brooks, and Hamlet director Michael Almereyda have all attached their names to canned attempts at adapting his satirical 1985 novel White Noise before Noah Baumbach finally succeeded. In a way, it’s easy to see why – it’s an astoundingly difficult piece of fiction to translate to the screen. The novel’s events span an entire surreal year in the life of professor Jack Gladney and his family, exploring rampant consumerism, the increasing dominance of technology, huge-scale disasters, unknown airborne chemicals causing unspecified diseases, ecological disaster, and rogue drugs to take the fearful sting out of death itself, peddled by a person (and also composite) called Mr Grey. Though plane-crashes and mysterious deaths punctuate the story, watched with grim fascination, the biggest disaster of all is the ominously titled Airborne Toxic Event. The huge black plume is potentially fatal, causing early symptoms such as sweaty palms, nausea, and a sense of déjà vu. It also forces Jack and his wife Babette to directly confront their shared fears of death – and sheds incisive light on the spectacle and artifice of modern life.
Sporting a frankly terrible leather jacket, and an inflated sense of self-importance, Adam Driver plays Jack Gladney flawlessly. Gladney is a minor academic celebrity thanks to pioneering the disconcerting field of ‘Hitler Studies’ – a new technique that involves detaching the Nazi leader completely from the unspeakable atrocities he committed, and examining him as a kind of ahistorical icon instead. His wife Babette (Greta Gerwig) has curly and “important” hair, and secretly pops mysterious pills called Dylar – between them, the two divorcees share a clan of four kids who have knitted together into a fairly functional family. Above all else, they’re obsessed with and deeply fearful of mortality, frequently worrying about who will die first. “Who decides these things?” agonises Jack as he lies in bed. “What is out there? Who are you?”
When it was first published in 1985, White Noise’s key elements still felt like distant horrors, looming on the horizon like the toxic, belching cloud that floats over the generic midwestern town of Blacksmith. Today, meanwhile, we regularly witness untold atrocities happening in real-time, beamed into the palms of our hands. Each one of us can now identify easily with the panicked scramble of the rapidly-unfolding unknown; the misinformation, the panic, ever-changing symptoms, and the conspiracists who believe the government has something to hide. We have all lived it over the past few years. Does that take some of the bite out of Baumbach’s skilled adaptation of a notoriously complicated literary classic, or make it all the more timely?
Broadly faithful to the source material, Baumbach makes surprisingly light work of translating its onslaught of images to the screen. Here, too, dialogue is droll and slightly uneasy; characters seem detached from reality in a way that’s hard to put your finger on.
That said, White Noise does have weak spots. Dylar-flogging pharmacist Mr Grey is foreshadowed by an incredibly jarring horror treatment, while the sharply dry dialogue doesn’t always leave space for nuance. By and large, though, Baumbach handles the challenge brilliantly – stand-out passages that don’t make the final cut are cleverly alluded to, and by the time it wraps up, you barely miss the original ending. Instead, Baumbach dishes up an epic and surreal final dance scene soundtracked by LCD Soundsystem’s ‘new body rhumba’ – and it’s the absurdist sign-off it deserves.
- Director: Noah Baumbach
- Starring: Adam Driver, Greta Gerwig, Don Cheadle
- Release date: December 2 (in cinemas), December 30 (Netflix)