In Praise of the Unfilmable Novel

Noah Baumbach’s adaptation of the Don DeLillo novel White Noise might seem odd now—but there’s a good chance it’ll age in wild and interesting ways.

In Praise of the Unfilmable Novel

Photographs: Everett Collection; Collage: Gabe Conte

I picked up Don DeLillo’s 1985 novel White Noise as a younger, more impressionable reader and thought, “Damn, now this is a novel.” I’m sure I was not alone in this; as he was for lots of other folks, DeLillo was my gateway drug for more out there later 20th-century American fiction, from Paul Auster to David Foster Wallace. Yet not once did I think “Gee, I’d like to see this made into a movie.” 

That is another thought about the book I was not alone in having—White Noise famously belongs to the category of “unfilmable novels,” books thought to be impossible to adapt to the screen for one reason or another. And yet Noah Baumbach’s version of the book is out now, streaming on Netflix. The Guardian seems to be really into it, while one of my favorite newsletters, The Dirt, thinks Baumbach’s take on the book tries a little too hard. If you care about Rotten Tomatoes, as of me writing this, it barely squeaks by with audiences, getting a 57 percent score from them, and a 63 percent on the Tomatometer. All of which seems to suggest: yeah, adapting this book? Bad idea.

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The funny thing about film adaptations of unfilmable novels, though, is how they age: while they tend to meet critical resistance upon release, something interesting happens after that. Often, the movie versions of unfilmable novels tend to grow more interesting with time. 

It’s worth asking what, exactly, makes a book “unfilmable” in the first place. “I feel like there are two broad categories of unfilmable books,” says Lincoln Michel, who writes the publishing industry newsletter Counter Craft. The first category is all about complexity and/or scale. The grand example of this is literally the father of all novels, Miguel de Cervantes’ 17th-century masterpiece Don Quixote. Terry Gilliam made a film lampooning his famous failed attempts at bringing the 1000-plus page book to the screen, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. The other category, Michel says, “are novels that are thought to be artistically unfilmable in the sense that their style and form is so tied to the novel—to text and the page—that film couldn’t capture what makes them work and any adaptation would simply be an entirely different thing.”

John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces might be the king of this category: despite seemingly filmable subject matter (a sloppy schmuck’s misadventures in New Orleans), a posthumous Pulitzer for the author, and a still-obsessive fanbase, failed attempts at making the book into a movie are the stuff of legend. Harold Ramis, John Waters and Steven Soderbergh have all been linked to directing a version of the movie, and everybody from Divine, John Candy, John Belushi, Will Ferrell, Chris Farley and Zach Galifianakis have been considered for the lead role of Ignatius J. Reilly. Yet in 2015, I made the drive out to Boston to see a stage adaptation of the book starring Nick Offerman as the novel’s bumbling central character—and it was great. This makes me wonder if the book is unfilmable—or if risk-averse movie studios are just uninterested in proving that it belongs on the silver screen. 

Michel thinks his first category has shrunk over the last twenty years, as CGI has progressed, TV budgets have grown, and we’ve grown accustomed to multi-part films. “There was a time when Lord of the Rings and Dune and the Game of Thrones books (the A Song of Ice and Fire series) were considered unfilmable,” he explains. “Now we expect any popular SFF property to at some point be turned into a series or multi-part film with a massive budget.” But that doesn’t much explain the until-now hesitancy to greenlight a book like White Noise, or even much more of the work of an author like DeLillo, indisputably an American master but one with vanishingly few movie adaptations to show for it. “His works are often dense with storylines and characters, but so much of their pleasure is bound up in their distinct aesthetics and prose that it seems hard to translate to a different medium,” Michel notes.

But one key to the second category is Thomas Pynchon. The famously reclusive author sits next to DeLillo; they both helped invent the groundbreaking postmodern fiction that came out of postwar America. And for the most part, I don’t think Pynchon’s work is intended for the movie theater; it’s hard to imagine Gravity’s Rainbow turning into a movie. But in 2014, Paul Thomas Anderson took up the challenge of adapting Pynchon by turning the writer’s 2009 bizarro mystery Inherent Vice into an equally confounding film—that was also, not coincidentally, one of the most interesting things PTA has ever done. I don’t hear a lot of people mentioning Inherent Vice along with Boogie Nights, There Will Be Blood, or Phantom Thread when they talk of Anderson’s best films, and I think that’s what makes it so perfect. It’s a strange movie. Whether or not it’s one of Anderson’s best I’ll leave it up to you to decide—but to me, it’s up there with The Long Goodbye and The Big Lebowski, forming a holy trinity of hazy, stoned, and sometimes hilarious noir masterpieces. Inherent Vice shouldn’t have worked as a movie, and it certainly confused more than a few viewers upon release—but a few years on, and I’ve noticed people coming around to it. It’s still a strange film, but allowing the discourse surrounding a big-name filmmaker like Anderson putting a new film out to die down I find often helps see movies in a different way. 

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The same feels true of another of De Lillo’s books to receive an adaptation: Cosmopolis, which David Cronenberg put onscreen in 2012. It’s a strange film, even by Cronenberg standards, and that’s part of its charm. But it has also aged well over the last decade since its release. Robert Pattinson’s protagonist—a billionaire riding around in the back of a limo while the world burns around him—feels even more relevant these days. 

That’s really the thing about unfilmable novels that wind up on film: it often takes time for them to mature and make more sense. Whether or not that’s the case for White Noise remains to be seen. Maybe a film about a creeping “airborne toxic event” looming over a small college town feels a little to on-the-nose in our pandemic era—but it’s safe to say that it’ll be worth checking in on a few years down the road. In the meantime—any takers for my A Confederacy of Dunces script?

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