With a literary filmmaker, a stellar cast, and a hundred-million-dollar budget, the adaptation of Don DeLillo’s classic novel had no chance to fail, yet it’s hard to determine whether it achieved what it set out to do. Just like the book, the movie is a masterful depiction of the cyberpunk environment within the suburban America of the previous century. Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife, Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their four children from other marriages try to come to terms with the technological intrusion into the fabric of their psyches. Set in 1984, Ohio, De Lillo’s novel seemed to have presaged at least two contemporary catastrophes: the 2023 Ohio train derailment and the narrowing attention spans of the TikTok era. Noah Baumbach’s movie emphasizes these very issues, recreating the first generation of stressed tech addicts with such precision, it taps into our dull ache of collective nostalgia. But as faithful as the adaptation of White Noise is, it lacks believability—an aspect crucial to the novel that explores the relationship between reality and simulation.
In DeLillo’s narrative, waves and radiation set the tone of the story. The background is woven with TVs, newspapers, computers, radios, electronic predictions, repetitive ads, pages filled to the brim. With no fact machine and no credible sources to consult, the suburban family rambles, trying to digest the constant flow of news and speculations.
The movie, too, prioritizes the contemplative quality of televised information— car crashes, search warrants, jet trainers falling during an air show—all happening someplace else, all hardly real. When the airborne toxic event makes an appearance, the characters find it difficult to classify something so cinematic into the category of reality, and this is one of the conflicts the movie captures with artful precision.
Jack’s and Babette’s conversations in the book have the authenticity of a memoir, while Driver’s and Gerwig’s discourse leaves the viewer with a stagey aftertaste.
In the first supermarket scene where Jack introduces his children to Murray (Don Cheadle), the latter drops the important line taken directly out of the book—“Family is the cradle of world’s misinformation”—yet it’s misplaced, stolen from another chapter, from a different moment. Jack’s response—“There must be something in family’s life that generates factual error”—sounds too quick, too rehearsed to sustain the casualness of a grocery store chit-chat, which makes Gerwig’s subsequent two cents even more performative and contrived.
As an established academic with a specialty in Hitler studies, Jack knows there is something deeply troubling in our collective submission to technological advances, but the white noise is stuck too deep inside the cultural grid to reject it without rejecting society altogether.
The movie is virtually devoid of Jack’s ruminations, as the voice-over is kept to a minimum and the plot is propelled by dialogues alone. Jack’s lectures on the nature of plots and Hitler’s love for his mother are decidedly less theatrical in the book and come closer to being deadpan than expressive.
Killers and Diers
The subject matter in the movie veers sideways when it’s Murray and not Babette’s father who provides Jack with the means to end the story. More so, Cheadle’s character does it the same night he tells Jack his theory of killers and diers.
In the attempts to limit the number of secondary characters (no Bee, no Jack’s exes, no mention of the most photographed barn), the movie inadvertently implies Murray’s theory to be a direct advice to violate human law.
Fear of Death
Since the fear of death is the central topic of DeLillo’s postmodern tale, the plot twists do not work without the viewer fully realizing Jack’s plight. Even though the characters in the movie read food labels, jog up the stairs, and frequent doctor’s offices, the primal fear is largely based on three hundred pages of DeLillo’s eloquence.
Both Driver, 39, and Gerwig, 39, do not reflect the death anxiety of fifty-one-year-old Jack and his slightly younger wife. The actors, as talented as they are, embody their characters with a theatrical gusto rather than an ever-present dread of the imminent.
For those who haven’t read the book, the movie fails to transcribe the overarching reason to embrace the white noise and the benefit that comes with its absorption. “It prolongs life,” Murray says at the end of the novel. He lists “lasers, masers, ultrasound” as things that comprise the silver lining of the unstoppable scientific usurpation. More importantly, to delve head-on into the glowing screen, into the lives of others, is to forget where time is drifting to, that is, deathward.
The white noise is the means to singe the fear of death with waves and radiation, but the movie focuses exclusively on the dark side of technological progress, stripping the story off dimensions.
Baumbach’s film is a beautiful homage to DeLillo’s vision, but it’s not a recreation of DeLillo’s book. Perhaps, a mini-series would have been a more suitable outlet. Solving the problem of perspective could have allowed room for Jack’s thought pattern, that is, the genius of DeLillo’s prose. In any case, without the underlying intensity of death anxiety and the solution the technological takeover provides, White Noise is reduced to just that: an even mixture of high-quality sound waves and a hypnotizing hum of entertainment.
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