Visions of financial ruin: Cronenberg brings DeLillo’s Cosmopolis to the big screen

Cosmopolis’ adaptation by David Cronenberg (left) is the first time Don DeLillo’s work has hit cinemas. EPA/Joao Relvas

New York writer Don DeLillo’s 2003 novella Cosmopolis has been adapted into a blockbuster film by David Cronenberg, to be released in Australia today. The film, with an all-star cast including Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche, premiered at Cannes on May 25th, and ended with an eight-and-a-half minute standing ovation.

Cronenberg is bringing DeLillo back into the spotlight after highly successful novels White Noise (1985) and Underworld (1997). The question is, how will DeLillo’s fame register with a new generation of readers and viewers, and what will it mean for his past works?

What will the public make of DeLillo’s vision?

Touted by many as one of the greatest living writers in the United States, DeLillo’s fame peaked with his cultural studies satire White Noise, which won the National Book Award for Fiction. His enormous longitudinal study of American life in Underworld earned him several prizes, as well as nominations including the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1998.

First and foremost, DeLillo is regarded as a visionary. He has never been one to shy away from critical commentary on the United States, but rather embraces the chance to evaluate current events. His 2007 novel Falling Man was a brave exploration of 9/11 from the points of view of both New Yorkers and terrorists.

New readers, however, may not realise that it is not DeLillo’s first piece on the subject matter of terrorism.

In fact, as early as 1991 — some ten years before the Twin Towers fell — his novel Mao II was an explicit foray into terrorism, and, in particular, the connection between terrorism and novelists. The preempted theme of terrorism in Mao II, the original cover of Underworld, which showed the Twin Towers shrouded in smoke, and the publication of White Noise and its “Airborne Toxic Event” chemical spill one year before Chernobyl, have given DeLillo the somewhat dubious but nonetheless interesting reputation as a visionary.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a US economic crash was portrayed in Cosmopolis about seven years before the beginning of the global recession.

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Reviewing Cronenberg’s adaption, David Jenkins described Cosmopolis as “an existential road movie for our financially and morally bankrupt times”. What remains unsaid is that these times have come nine years after the release of the novella. In 2012, millionaire protagonist Eric Packer’s reckless play with world currencies and stock market investments is making a greater impact than it ever could in 2003.

DeLillo’s “premonitions”, however, are more likely down to the writer’s acute analysis of social trends, and estimations of subsequent outcomes. As an incisive social commentator, DeLillo writes the future. Such a writer is best read in hindsight, since the moral and social lessons in his fiction are explicit only after time has passed.

The release of the film adaptation of Cosmopolis is timely, arriving on the tail end of a slightly downward trend of reviews regarding DeLillo’s latest writing. Comments from readers often express disappointment in DeLillo’s increasingly metaphysical, mystical and sparse writing, indicating what may be a general exasperation towards his distilled new style.

His latest novel, Point Omega (2010), will be especially interesting to consider after time’s passing. Upon publication it was described by The Guardian’s James Lasdun as “finely austere”. David Ignatius from the Washington Post wrote, “DeLillo’s art has been condensed in this book into its own dense singularity”, calling it an “oblique fable”. The sparse linguistic and plot quality of his recent work is taken up time and time again with reviewers, demonstrating the shift he has made since the publication of his past tomes.

So where is DeLillo’s artistic future heading? Cronenberg’s adaptation of Cosmopolis should indeed place him back into the spotlight, bringing over a new generation of readers. The adaptation, I hope, will shift DeLillo’s works into the new genre. He has written novels, short stories, plays, and a screenplay, but Cosmopolis is the first of his novel-to-film transitions. Although the film rights for most, if not all, of his novels have been bought, none have been produced until now.

Perhaps other potential directors are resting on their laurels, considering how to screen White Noise’s Airborne Toxic Event or The Body Artist’s otherworldly mimetic child. Nonetheless, Cosmopolis’ general release will determine whether DeLillo’s writing will profit from making the journey from page to film.