Some books are so fantastical in nature it’s hard to imagine how a Hollywood director could possibly do them justice by bringing them to the screen. However, directors have proven their mettle time and again by doing just that, with films like The Lord of the Rings, Trainspotting, and Watchmen.
Netflix and director Noah Baumbach are the latest to challenge a book adaptation head-on. Baumbach, who has a personal connection to author Don Delillo’s White Noise, took a special interest in adapting ...modern novel into a big-budget project that’s complete with a stellar cast and eye-catching aesthetics.
Netflix’s ‘White Noise’ is based on Delillo’s 1985 novel
Delillo has written 18 novels over the course of his career so far, rising to greater fame in 1985 with White Noise. Much of his work is characterized by a postmodern perspective on suburban life in America, along with commentary on themes like academia, terrorism, and consumerism.
White Noise contains elements of all of those and more, set in the ‘80s in the fictional town of Blacksmith. College professor Jack Gladney (Adam Driver), his wife Babette (Greta Gerwig), and their brood of children from a series of previous marriages float through their lives until they’re forced to confront a series of natural and manmade disasters. The family’s community is threatened by an “airborne toxic event” after a spectacular train crash, launching them into a frenzy to try to get to safety.
Baumbach wrote the screenplay during the pandemic
Baumbach was a fan of Delillo’s novel for decades, having read it for the first time after college at the suggestion of his father. He reread the novel in late 2019 following his father’s death as a way to mourn his passing and fell in love with the story again. “I’m now the age of Jack Gladney, and my dad was his age when the book came out—it’s that whole cycle of life, which is always a head trip,” he told Vogue.
Baumbach set out to adapt the novel into a film, making his first attempts at the beginning of the pandemic. The lines of cars to escape contagion, the runs to grocery stores to stock up on essentials, people in face-obscuring masks and full-body suits: All of it was in White Noise before it happened in real life in 2020.
“DeLillo’s real-but-not-real tenor that he strikes represented the world as it was feeling to me,” the director told Entertainment Weekly. “It really felt like this document was telling me things about what was happening now. It just felt uncanny.” According to Vogue, directors have tried to adapt the book into a film more than once before, only to abandon the effort when it became too onerous.
The novel’s satire, genre-hopping, and larger-than-life hyperbole to dramatize suburban America means creative writing, big budgets, and a highly skilled cast. Baumbach was initially challenged but not phased.
“It was something that I was responding to and drawn to adapting, and drawn to make into a movie, so I was following that trail,” Baumbach explained to Entertainment Weekly. “I wasn’t thinking about whether something is filmable or not. I don’t even know what that means.”
‘White Noise’ has a reported budget of more than $100 million
Netflix trusted Baumbach to deliver on the project, with a budget that shot past $100 million. The budget includes salaries for the blockbuster cast like Driver and Gerwig, not to mention Don Cheadle and Andre 3000.
Besides that, the film calls for plenty of visual spectacles, including a train crash, a car crash, a runaway station wagon floating down a creek, and a CGI toxic cloud. Done right, those come with a hefty price tag. Not only did Baumbach receive Netflix’s support, but he also won the approval of Delillo himself.
“We were only on the phone together during COVID,” Baumbach told Entertainment Weekly. “We finally got to see each other face-to-face a few months ago. He was really great and generous about it.” White Noise is streaming on Netflix.