A Recap of the “White Noise” Book Before the Movie Comes Out
One of Netflix’s hottest new releases this year is an adaptation of the 1984 novel “White Noise” by Don DeLillo. The movie, also named “White Noise,” will star Adam Driver and Greta Gerwig as Jack and Babette Gladney, who deal with a toxic chemical threat, among other life struggles. While it’s not clear how closely the movie, which hits Netflix on Dec. 2, will follow the postmodernist novel, we have everything you need to know about it below. But beware, many spoilers ahead!
What Happens in “White Noise”?
“White Noise” is based on the life of Jack Gladney, a college professor who created a Hitler Studies Department, and his sometimes dysfunctional blended family. The book’s main plot follows the Gladneys as they’re forced to face their own mortality when an airborne toxic chemical threatens the small town of Blacksmith, where they live. We learn that during the event, Jack is exposed to the deadly chemical and told they don’t know how or when it will kill him.
The novel follows the innermost thoughts of Jack and the other main characters, using his conversations and interactions to outline the major themes, which are a crippling fear of death and how overconsumption of media and technology has created white noise in all of the characters’ lives that limits their ability to see their reality clearly.
Who Is Jack Gladney?
The novel begins at College-on-the-Hill, where Jack Gladney is the chair of Hitler Studies, which he very proudly started despite his inability to speak German. He introduces us to his wife, Babette, whom he is completely in love with, noting her best traits are that she takes care of the children, reads to a blind man, and is not selfish like his ex-wives were. Between the two of them, they have four children from their previous marriages who live with them.
Jack’s workplace is one of the centerpieces of the novel, and it’s there that we meet one of the other main characters, Jack’s closest friend, Murray Jay Siskind. Murray is a professor in the American Environments Department who wants to create a department to study Elvis Presley. He moved to Blacksmith from New York and, throughout the book, provides humor and insight as he helps guide Jack through various issues he faces.
At the beginning of the novel, we get insight into Jack’s obsession with how he’s viewed by others. When he learns an international conference on Hitler Studies will be held at his college, he fears someone will learn he doesn’t speak German and he’ll be exposed as a fraud. We see him secretly take German lessons to try to avoid anyone finding out who he really is.
The Toxic Chemical Threat
It’s Jack’s son Heinrich who alerts his father to a black cloud forming near Blacksmith. Heinrich explains to his dad that it’s a train wreck that has caused a toxic chemical to be released into the air and that people are preparing to flee because of the possible dangers. Despite warnings on the TV and radio, Jack insists on living life as normal and ignores pleas from Heinrich to evacuate.
It isn’t until the entire town is forced to evacuate that Jack and his family pack up and head to their evacuation site. At the site, there’s humor to be seen in certain elements, despite the impending doom everyone is feeling. We see Babette reading tabloid magazines to blind people, Heinrich flourishing as a self-proclaimed expert on the chemical-exposure event, and Murray huddled in a car with sex workers.
It is here when Jack learns that he’s been exposed to the deadly chemical and is told he will not know when the symptoms will set in or how long he can live with them. At this moment, Jack’s fear of death is truly realized. He turns to Babette, who admits her own fear of death has led to her own issues.
What Pill Is Babette Taking?
While all of this is happening, it’s revealed that Babette is taking pills in secret after her daughter finds them. Babette won’t tell them what the pill is, so Jack takes it to a colleague. That’s when Jack finds out it’s a psycho-pharmaceutical drug. Upon confronting Babette, she admits the pill is an experimental drug that she believes will cure her fear of dying. She also admits she slept with the program’s director, Willie Mink, to gain access to the pills.
Jack’s Fear of Death
Jack’s fear of death is made evident more and more throughout the book and well before he’s exposed to the deadly toxin. Murray has an idea to help Jack: he suggests that the way to get over his fear of death is to take someone’s life.
It’s after this that Jack decides it’s Willie Mink’s life he wants to take. He devises a plan to shoot Mink three times and then leave a suicide note. After Jack confronts Mink, he shoots three times, hitting him twice in the abdomen with one bullet hitting Jack’s wrist. But after shooting Mink, Jack suddenly sees him as a person and has the desire to save his life. He performs CPR on Mink and takes him to a hospital, where he will survive the gunshots.
What Is the White Noise?
Throughout the book, we’re exposed to different types of media that provide white noise, and Jack begins to wonder why he’s hearing it. It’s Murray who reveals that white noise is just a distraction from the fact that we will all die one day. It’s that white noise that distracts us from thinking about our impending death.
“White Noise”‘s Conclusion
At the end of the novel, we see Jack watch as his son crosses four lanes of traffic while riding his tricycle, barely surviving the incident. This leaves Jack to muse about how differently children and adults view death. The novel concludes with a scene about how the supermarket has rearranged everything on its shelves, causing panic and confusion for its customers.