Nameless Energies: Don DeLillo at the Movies

A journey into the world of a literary giant, through the directors who shaped his writings and the films his books begot.
Leonardo Goi

Illustration by Leonardo Goi.

Early into Don DeLillo’s White Noise, Jack Gladney joins his colleague Murray for a trip to the Most Photographed Barn in America. Jack, in DeLillo’s satire of academia and its improbable residents, is America’s foremost Hitler expert and Advanced Nazism professor at the fictional College-on-the-Hill; Murray an ex-sportswriter with an Amish beard and full corduroy outfit, determined to be to Elvis what Jack is to the Führer. It’s Murray who suggests the two should pay a visit to the barn. What that looks like, however, DeLillo never says. Jack and Murray arrive at a makeshift loft besieged by buses and cars and walk up to a hilltop where throngs of people surround the building, snapping pictures of it. There are no descriptors; for all we know the stable could all be an illusion, a hologram, a black hole. “No one sees the barn,” Murray explains after a prolonged silence. “We’re not here to capture an image, we’re here to maintain one. Every photograph reinforces the aura.” As people leave the elevated site, they are replaced at once by new photographers, a never-ending loop. “Can you feel it, Jack?” Murray purrs. “An accumulation of nameless energies.” 

Noah Baumbach’s White Noise does away with the scene. Understandably so, perhaps. You and I can picture it as DeLillo writes it, but “cinematizing” raises all sorts of practical questions: how do you show a thing no one really seems to see, and which the book itself refuses to describe? And how do you do that without taking away from the abstract feel of these few paragraphs? The sequence is almost adaptation-proof if approached literally, yet I can’t help but think of Baumbach’s decision as a glaring omission. Not merely because—as anyone who’s read the book will tell you—this is one of its most indelible passages, but also because it captures the source of all its timeless power. For a tale that’s so concerned with our immanence, our chronic fear of death, the “religious experience” Jack and Murray undergo as they join the crowd amounts to “a kind of spiritual surrender”: a tacit pact that numbs their vision (“we only see what others see”) all while lulling them into thinking they’re part of something bigger than themselves, a “collective perception” that binds them to the thousands who came before them, and the thousands who will follow. Literary critics often invoke the specter of Jean Baudrillard to account for DeLillo’s ongoing fascination with the world of simulacra, in which images and electronic representations replace direct experience. Which is just what’s happening here: people aren’t able to see the barn because its reproductions (the countless photos, clips, postcards peddled around the lot) have become more real than reality, and now stand for the world they replace. 

No wonder the cinematic image should occupy such a privileged place in DeLillo’s fiction. Stranded in a world that seems to have lost all substance and reference points, his characters fumble after a coherent identity in the restless flux of images they either consume or produce (sometimes a mix of both). His first novel, Americana (1971), followed a 28-year-old advertising exec, David Bell, who repudiates the industry to embark on “a mysterious and sacramental journey” with a handful of fellow drifters into the US Midwest. And it’s not long before he picks up a 16mm Canon Scoopic to make a film, “a long messy autobiographical type film… a long unmanageable movie full of fragments of everything that’s part of my life.” 

DeLillo’s books are themselves collages, hopscotching as they often do between historical facts and fiction, archives and conspiracy theories, a penchant that extends to his characters, too. David’s only the first in a long series of screen-obsessed creations who turn to the camera as a means of reaffirming their sense of self. It’s a pantheon that also includes such sordid members as Libra’s Lee Harvey Oswald, Underworld’s Richard Henry Gilkey (aka The Texas Highway Killer), or Cosmopolis’s Benno Levin, who all welcome the media attention for their heinous acts as a means to “validate the experience,” make it more real. It’s not just that screens bob up everywhere in DeLillo’s books; images—and cinema—end up shaping their structure, rhythms, and textures. Asked about his earliest influences, DeLillo once stated that the movies of Jean-Luc Godard had “a more immediate effect” on his craft than anything he’d ever read. Americana, for one, is paved with Godardian influences, some explicit (David glancing at a poster of Belmondo glancing at “the poster of purposeful Bogart,” in Breathless), others subtler. Like Belmondo’s Ferdinand in Pierrot le Fou, David’s road trip doubles as an escape from his bourgeois milieu for an experiment in improvisation; his film project, which he envisions as a series of candid interviews with his subjects framed in static shots, echoes the survey on French youth Jean-Pierre Léaud carries out in Masculin Féminin

Pierrot le Fou (Jean-Luc Godard, 1965): cinema ends up shaping DeLillo's structures, rhythms, and textures.

But the cross-pollination between writer and filmmaker cuts a lot deeper than that. A sprawling patchwork of recollections and images David disinters from his subconscious, Americana, as Mark Osteen has astutely noted, embraces what Richard Roud calls the “analogical plot,” Godard’s proclivity for beguilingly superfluous digressions, detours and cul-de-sacs that subvert narrative conventions and function as a sort of commentary. David’s film, in turn, strives for the same spontaneity the director often sought to wring out from his films, morphing into the “secret diary” Godard described his 1963 Le petit soldat: “the monologue of someone trying to justify themselves before an almost accusing camera, as one does before a lawyer or a psychiatrist.” These strategies reverberate all through DeLillo’s oeuvre. Take Underworld, his 1999 masterwork, a labyrinthine and spellbinding chronicle of five decades of US history that kicks off with the epochal 1951 baseball triumph of the New York Giants over the Brooklyn Dodgers and ends somewhere in the early 1990s. The novel refuses to single out a protagonist and adopts instead a more diluted, choral narration. We follow Nick Shay, a middle-aged waste management exec reminiscing about his troubled childhood in the Bronx, but also J. Edgar Hoover, Lenny Bruce, a handful of New York City nuns, an artist—Klara Sax—working to repurpose a whole fleet of dismissed nuclear bombers, Frank Sinatra. 

Halfway through Underworld, Klara Sax flocks to an exclusive screening of a long-lost Sergei Eisenstein film (a DeLillo invention): Unterwelt, a silent, black-and-white parade of disfigured people that makes Klara wonder if Eisenstein was being prescient about nuclear annihilation. As Godard does in Americana, Eisenstein haunts the book well beyond the surface level of explicit allusions. He percolates through its fabric, influencing DeLillo’s own technique. No other book he’s ever written feels as cinematic in its approach as Underworld. Just read the 1951 prologue at the Polo Grounds, where the viewpoint embodies the movement of a body camera scanning the crowd, shifting from crane to tracking shots, switching angles, perspectives. The result is staggering, like watching the game unspool on a screen. And it also dovetails with Eisenstein’s concept of montage editing, which presupposes a necessary friction between shots, a collision of images that gives way to unexpected connections and clashes, amplifying the viewer’s emotional shocks before the film. 

DeLillo is often hailed as a prophet of dour postmodernism, a title that’s both apt and somewhat astringent. Sure, his prose can be glacial and deflective, his characters can often speak and act like automatons. But he’s also capable of immense swaths of feeling, pages that burn with an almost Kerouacian lust for life. Nowhere does that dance feel more graceful and organic than in Underworld, a book that opens with a prologue titled “The Triumph of Death” (after a copy of Bruegel’s painting J. Edgar Hoover glances at during the Dodgers-Giants game seconds after an assistant tells him the Soviets just dropped their first nuclear bomb) and then manages to squeeze in, several hundred pages later, a heartrending journal entry penned by a twentysomething Nick Shay during a road trip with a lover—a Godardian digression and “secret diary” if there ever was one—the kind of writing that’s so evocative it always makes me feel as if it was jotted down on the go, the car racing west, California-bound:

I thought our faces might flare up and disappear the night in mid-June when we climbed the narrow stepped streets of Bisbee, Arizona, shocked by love, sort of self-erased, after a beer and sandwich in a dark bar filled with copper miners and their heartworm dogs. I didn’t know it was possible to feel a thing like this, and then to feel it together, our heads half blown away and our minds emptied out, lost to everything but love. 

Eisenstein’s montage editing spills over the rest of Underworld—and DeLillo’s work at large. This is why reading his books amounts to such a rich sensory experience: the jolting changes in perspectives, the textual “jump cuts,” and the frequent detours turn his pages into mosaics brimming with all kinds of visual, aural, olfactory, and tactile details. It is also why translating DeLillo’s mise-en-scène for the screen is such a hard feat. 

Never Ever (Benoît Jacquot, 2016), an adaptation of DeLillo's 2001 novella The Body Artist.

Speaking with Michael Krasny, DeLillo once juxtaposed his style with that of Thomas Bernhard, the Austrian novelist whose fiction “is all words,” with little to no feel for the physical environments his characters inhabit, no real “sense of place.” Even at their most skeletally spare, DeLillo’s books radiate an immersive quality, locking you in places that always feel lived-in and three-dimensional. That’s all irremediably lost on Benoît Jacquot’s 2016 Never Ever (À Jamais), adapted from DeLillo’s 2001 novella The Body Artist by Julia Roy, who also stars in the lead role. Lauren (renamed Laura in the film) is a body artist mourning the death of her husband Rey (Mathieu Amalric), a director who gained short-lived fame in the 1970s and committed suicide at 64, leaving his wife to roam the spectrally large seaside house they used to rent together. 

The Body Artist opens in medias res, capturing Rey and Lauren as they share breakfast—their last together. There are no temporal markers in the prologue, nothing to give us a sense of the time of the year the action unfolds. And yet when I first read it I could swear that snow was covering the lawn, the bird feeder, the woods around the house. So strong is the wintry and mineral quality of these first pages that even the few elements DeLillo singles out for their striking pigments (a glass of orange juice, a bowl of blueberries, the “claret flesh” of an open fig) come across as almost color-scrubbed. I have no doubt the villa Lauren remains stranded in, all through the book, is just as sparsely furnished as Jacquot pictures it in Never Ever. So why is it that it feels so much less real, tangible, authentic than it does in the book? Because DeLillo calls upon all our senses to conjure his settings: this means a cornucopia of visual details, but also aural, haptic, and olfactory traces, as the smell of Rey’s cigarette, which, we’re told, “was part of [Lauren’s] knowledge of his body.” In a story so intrigued by the ways in which the dead can survive through the bodies of the living, this synesthesia is an act of faith. 

None of that survives in Never Ever. The world Jacquot and Roy resurrect is so aesthetically and emotionally turgid the whole film quickly swells into a kind of still life. Were that its only sin! But Roy reimagines The Body Artist as a ghost story, an abrupt rupture from the book that ends up forsaking all that’s truly disquieting and gripping about it. If there’s one genre DeLillo’s novella seems to toy with, that’d be sci-fi, not the pseudo-horror the film sometimes apes. Shortly after Rey’s suicide, Lauren happens into a boy hiding in a bedroom on the third floor, “a smallish, fine-bodied, sandy-haired” youth who seems to have been catapulted in from another galaxy. He does not talk—not in the way you and I do—does not know who he is—and if he did, he wouldn’t be able to tell you. The boy speaks in tongues, fragmented sentences that are really just short strings of unconnected words, and it’s fitting Lauren should end up wondering if she’s hosting a human or an alien. Roy gets rid of the kid, opting for a far more clichéd and spectacularly less thought-provoking option. She swaps the extraterrestrial guest for Rey’s ghost (“played” by a catatonic, flannel-clad Amalric), reminding us through an endless and endlessly repetitive series of peekaboo reverse shots of empty chairs and sofas that none of this is real; that it’s all just a figment of Lauren’s imagination; that Rey isn’t there, won’t be there, ever. You get the idea. 

On the upside, this breathtakingly uninspired adaptation can help us understand the special function language plays for DeLillo’s wanderers, and why screenwriters and filmmakers have a hard time tapping into that sensibility. There’s a passage in Underworld where a Jesuit priest and teacher invites teenage Nick Shay to take a look at his clerical shoe and name the many different parts, only to scold him for not getting past sole and heel. Eyelet, grommet, aglet, vamp… “Everyday things,” the old man croons, “represent the most overlooked knowledge. These names are vital to our progress.” Nick runs back to his room, defeated, angry. But the sermon has stuck with him. He says he wants “to look up words,” to look up “velleity and quotidian and memorize the fuckers for all time, spell them, learn them,” because—and in a book that teems with fulminating lines, this is one of the most revelatory—“this is the only way you can escape the things that made you.” Language, then, carries a redemptive power for DeLillo’s drifters, whose ultimate bid for salvation resides in the words they choose to process and break free from their traumas. It is language that helps us find each other, that reminds us we are, after all, part of something larger. And to venture into a DeLillo book is very often to experience history from the perspective of that something larger: crowds, masses, collectives. This too, in a way, is a debt to Eisenstein, whose typage DeLillo embraces in an attempt to swap individual narratives for a more multitudinous focus. It is also why his characters can sometimes feel unnervingly inscrutable, miniaturized oracles who, as John Updike aptly summed up, “spout smart, swift essays at one another.” 

Cosmopolis (David Cronenberg, 2012). 

Updike was writing about Cosmopolis, which David Cronenberg went on to adapt in 2012. A chronicle of a day and a particularly eventful limo ride in the life of 28-year-old multi-billionaire asset manager Eric Packer (Robert Pattinson), Cosmopolis tracks Eric as he attempts an east-to-west, cross-Manhattan journey to get a haircut in Hell’s Kitchen, his childhood turf. Except of course things don’t quite go as planned, and the limo soon finds itself careening through biblical traffic. In that sprawl, Cosmopolis unfurls as a turn-of-the-twenty-first-century odyssey: The President is visiting; a megastar rapper’s funeral sends thousands mourning and marching in unison; and hordes of anti-globalist protesters set the city on fire, all while a “very credible” threat to Eric’s life hangs over the ride like a sword of Damocles, detonating in a late night showdown with a former employee he fired and long forgot, Paul Giamatti’s Benno Levin. 

Where Roy’s script departed wildly from the source text, Cronenberg’s is an almost verbatim transposition. He keeps those “smart, swift essays” intact. “A farce of extravagant wealth and electronic mysticism,” as Updike went on to tout it, Cosmopolis is a study in affectlessness, and the exchanges between Eric and the numerous aides who interrupt his journey—not to mention his “wife of twenty-two days,” poet and heiress Elise Shifrin (Sarah Gadon)—reflect the novel’s alienating, detached register. Characters spew forth a patois of high-tech and finance that deliberately courts the ridiculous and obtuse. Plus they don’t talk so much to but at each other. Just listen to Eric sharing breakfast with Elise and attempting small talk. “What are we going to talk about?” she wonders. “I want a heliboard on the roof,” he drones. “I’ve acquired the air right, but we still need the zoning variants. Don’t you want to eat? There’s a shooting range next to the elevator bank.”

Moments like these, when I first watched Cosmopolis, made me wince in a way the book never seemed to, as if hearing those dialogues out loud suddenly woke me up to an artificial quality the page managed to keep dormant. Is this how people talk? Of course not. But then the characters in this urban saga are hardly people in the ordinary, full-blooded meaning of the word. Perched atop a leather throne in the rear of his limo, his skin a vampiric pearly redolent of the Edward Cullen years, Pattinson’s Eric is so clinically self-absorbed he does not even see his driver until the car reaches its destination, smeared in shit and paint, several hours and blocks later. The monotone speeches, the lobotomized undead popping in and out of Eric’s car—all of it speaks to DeLillo’s larger indictment of the soul- and life-denying tendencies of capitalism. Many rewatches later, I’m now convinced not only that Cronenberg’s is the most faithful Don DeLillo adaptation out there yet, but also that to criticize the director for its near-numbing, concept-heavy aura is to play into the novelist’s hands. It’s not that the film works because of its literal grafting of DeLillo’s words; it works because it succeeds in sponging the post-human atmosphere the book radiates. It gets DeLillo like no other film seems to have so far. Everything in Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis is engineered to remind you that what you’re watching, in line with the spirit of the book, is a relentless memento mori. Dig an inch beneath the slick interiors of Eric’s sarcophagus-like car/office and you’ll catch the necrotic stench of people who’ve been dead a long time already.  

Cosmopolis-the-book came out in 2003; three years later, the first and only feature film DeLillo has written to date, Game 6, premiered at Sundance. The equivalent of a Möbius strip of the novelist’s Greatest Tropes, Game 6 is in many ways a close if far less incisive cousin to Cosmopolis. Directed by Michael Hoffman, it stars Michael Keaton as Nicky Rogan, a New York playwright and Boston Red Sox fan/martyr who misses the opening night of his new Broadway show to watch his team lose to the New York Mets in the 1986 World Series. Like Cosmopolis, Game 6 is a circuitous, cryptic city epic covering a little less than a day spent by and large in traffic jams. Like Eric, Nicky is haunted by a very credible and largely invisible threat, the elusive Steven Schwimmer (Robert Downey Jr.), a critic known as Broadway’s Exterminating Angel. Nicky shares with Eric a Meursault-like indifference toward his looming end; he knows Steven will pan his play, but only resolves to take his revenge, gun in hand, after the Red Sox’s fall from heaven, a climax that’s essentially cribbed straight out of Cosmopolis (where Giamatti and Pattinson bond over their “asymmetrical” prostates, Keaton and Downey Jr. bury the hatchet over their mutual and self-flagellating love for the Sox). There’s even time for Nicky to get a haircut, and for an asbestos explosion à la White Noise’s Airborne Toxic Event to thwart his ride across Manhattan.

Game 6 (Michael Hoffman, 2005), DeLillo's first and only feature screenplay.

But the script carries little of the perceptiveness of its literary ancestors. To be sure, Game 6 is a much more innocuous affair compared to the apocalyptic nightmares that make up Cosmopolis and White Noise, and if one’s to go by Ross Scarano’s comprehensive oral history of how Hoffman’s film came to life (and was hastily buried), it seems like the writer may not have been all too invested in the project to begin with. People still talk in DeLillo-ese here, tossing half-ironic, half-poker-faced pronouncements at each other. But it’s as if DeLillo himself was trying to swap the more abstract feel of his dialogues for a different jargon, a faster and only occasionally more naturalistic repartee. Where he lands, however, is on a hybrid gray area in which his trademarked oblique exchanges coexist with overwrought platitudes and clichés. Here’s Steven bitching about his haters: “People who write the truth are the outcasts of society… the truth is never gentle!” Here’s Nicky’s dad dispensing wisdom to his son: “Your truth is locked up in the past!” And here’s a taxi driver who tags along with Nicky to watch the match in a Mets-infested bar: “You’re afraid to risk believing… People are dependable! Life is good!”

It’s curious that the one and only thing DeLillo ever wrote for the screen should not feel like a work by DeLillo and more like a watered-down self-parody, a meet-and-greet with old demons, archetypes, and tropes dissected with far greater depth in his books. Perhaps the uptake here is as simple as this: different media require different idioms, different codes to work, and all that’s puzzling about DeLillo’s work in Game 6 is a backhanded testament to the Herculean difficulties one must face when trying to make his writings feel as alive on the screen as they unfailingly do on the page. Perhaps.

For my part, though, Game 6 reminds me of a larger, trickier challenge every director and screenwriter tackling his books must face: how to nail their tonal whiplash, the “montage editing” that fills them with all sorts of stupefying contrasts. Which brings us back to White Noise, and to the Most Photographed Barn in America. Baumbach has never shied away from verbosity, and his script shows a keen ear for DeLillo’s takedown of our media-filled zeitgeist. The book was published in 1985; if the parallels between our COVID era and the Airborne Toxic Event that sends the Gladneys into lockdown are uncanny, it’s the critique of our zombified broadcast culture that makes it a prophetic read. But satire is only one side of the novel. Its full achievement—the reason behind its age-defining allure—lies in the careful balance DeLillo strikes between dread and wonder. As much as it doubles as a castigation of our screen-induced bulimia, of our tendencies to turn everything (including and perhaps especially Death itself) into a spectacle that’s as easy to produce and consume as supermarket goods, the novel is also an earnest and compassionate portrait of the awe and scorching loneliness that fuel those urges. 

White Noise (Noah Baumbach, 2022). 

This is what Baumbach’s White Noise does not understand—or maybe willfully ignores—about DeLillo’s: that the book is as in tune with the unremitting fear of death haunting Jack and his wife Babette (Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig, in the film) as it is with the manifestations of that “splendid transcendence” that dot their suburban routine. When Jack catches his youngest son muttering the words “Toyota Celica” in his sleep, shortly after the cloud of chemicals has forced the family into a quarantine camp, the words shake the professor “like the name of an ancient power in the sky.” The passage is hilarious, but there’s something sincerely harrowing about Jack’s awestruck reaction. It’s the same bewilderment that seizes him before The Most Photographed Barn, and again in the supermarkets Jack and his monkish sidekick Murray prowl in search for signals and meaning. That awe is often talked about in Baumbach’s take, but seldom felt. Where DeLillo’s book is suspended between tenderness and despair, Baumbach’s film sacrifices its stupor, the childlike incredulity that freezes on Jack’s face as he wakes up to the many otherworldly revelations that litter his routine. For all the titular babble echoing from TVs, radios, and loudspeakers, the novel manages to carve out several pauses, quiet breaks that trigger some of Jack’s most significant epiphanies. Baumbach finds no such peace, and no such silence: his White Noise is so cacophonous, its themes and discourse so thick, his film winds up sanding off the novel’s sardonic bite and much of its wonder. 

As a rabid fan of reading in general and reading Don DeLillo in particular, Hollywood’s newfound love for the 86-year-old New Yorker is reason to rejoice, if anything for the many new readers future adaptations will attract. Baumbach’s latest is only the tip of the iceberg: Paul Giamatti is set to produce a series based on Libra, while White Noise producer Uri Singer recently bought the rights to The Silence and Underworld, with Ted Melfi brought in to adapt, direct, and produce the latter for Netflix. Like Cronenberg, Roy, and Baumbach before him, Melfi’s in for an arduous challenge. He’ll be tackling one of America’s founding novels—arguably the White Whale itself, the Great American Novel—a work of art so majestic “it touches the sublime,” per Harold Bloom. Most importantly, though, he’ll have to find a way to do justice to its shape-shifting mystique, the countless points of view that make its chronicle of the second half of the US twentieth century so vibrant, yanked out of History and cast in a thrilling present tense. And he’ll have to capture the feeling you experience anytime you open a DeLillo book: that what you’re being gifted isn’t just one story but a myriad voices stitching together a living, breathing thing, a body organ that reminds you—page after page—that the written word can yield a joy and peace you didn’t think possible, and make you feel immeasurably less alone. This is the only way you can escape the things that made you.

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Don DeLilloNoah BaumbachLong ReadsDavid CronenbergBenoît JacquotMichael Hoffman
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