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Read the Book First: In Defense of Women Talking and White Noise

I hardly need to add my voice to the slew of recommendations of White Noise by Don DeLillo and Women Talking by Miriam Toews. They are two of my favorite novels. Both books have received rousing praise since their publications for literary ingenuity and heart, with White Noise becoming a classic since its 1985 release and Women Talking, released in 2019, sure to become a classic in time. It’s no surprise that filmmakers have set their ambitions on turning these iconic narratives into movies. Film adaptations of both novels have release dates set for December and are premiering at film festivals throughout the coming months. 

I have no doubt that these movie adaptations will be worth watching: the movie Women Talking has received incredible reviews so far and White Noise, though reviewed with less enthusiasm, is helmed by Noah Baumbach whose sensibilities on the screen align closely with DeLillo’s voice on the page—sometimes funny, sometimes irreverent, always smart.

White Noise is a sci-fi novel in which an “airborne toxic event” causes the evacuation of a small college town. The novel follows local history professor Jack Gladney and his family—wife Babette and children Denise, Steffie, Wilder, and Heinrich—as they navigate their newly apocalyptic world. The book traverses many registers, bringing hilarity, mystery, terror, love and wonder all to the surface, sometimes all at once. There’s sci-fi and mundane nights in front of the TV, family drama and scandal, a road trip and plenty of supermarket runs.

Women Talking takes place over a couple of days during which a group of Mennonite women meet secretly in a hayloft to discuss their futures after discovering that, in the night, they have been repeatedly drugged and sexually assaulted by the men of their community. The novel unfolds through the meeting’s minutes, taken by August, a man disgraced in the eyes of the colony because of the heresies of his rebellious parents. None of the women have been taught to write. It is a harrowing story, told with utmost realness. I often forgot I was reading while I read this book because I was so involved.

So, the books are great and the movies will probably be too. But that doesn’t make them mutually exclusive of each other. Though the films and the novels adopt the same plot, they are made of different fabric, creating necessarily a different relationship to the story in the viewer or reader. This is why books can be better than their movie adaptations, and movies can be better than the books they are based on.

So watching a movie adaptation doesn’t negate the enjoyment to be gained from reading the book. There’s a reason Toews and DeLillo wrote their novels as novels, being the most effective way they knew to communicate the lyricism, metaphors, and interweaving themes of their stories. And filmmakers Baumbach and Sarah Polley (screenwriter and director of Women Talking) have not made their movies merely to retell the novels as they’re written—more likely, the movies are made to shine a light on the stories in a way that novels can’t.

All the time, we hear people say, “Read the book first.” I think it’s more imperative to read the book at all. Seeing a movie is not comparable to reading a novel because the mediums are, at their core, different. They work their brilliance on us in different ways, bringing out new nuances so we don’t miss a thing.

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