The Goldfinch is a very pretty movie. That’s no shock, given the directing and cinematography team of John Crowley (Brooklyn) and Roger Deakins (a not-inconsiderable portion of the best-looking American films of the past 20 years). Aesthetics add new value to a narrative that loses its original medium—namely, all those words that can’t just be slapped onto celluloid. And The Goldfinch is losing a lot of them; at nearly 800 pages, it’s a doorstop of a novel. But in adapting this difficult-to-adapt work, the creative team made an odd choice: They didn’t replace all those long, character- and world-building passages with anything else. They just assembled the key plot points, and then tried to make them look nice. It’s a losing strategy for a film, and a death knell for a literary adaptation.
Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning book is above all else a character study, so by jettisoning most of the lengthy, unflashy moments of downtime that comprise the life of its lead character, the heart of the story is fundamentally changed. That wouldn’t be a problem if there was a sufficient reworking of the material so that it attempted a different kind of narrative altogether, one that focused more on a particular element or plot point. But the movie just stumbles from one progression of the story to the next, bereft of any connective tissue that would make it all cohere. This isn’t just the harping of “They didn’t include my favorite scene!” or “The book was better” refrains so common to adaptations of beloved books (though they didn’t, and it is). As our film editor, A.A. Dowd, who has not read the book, emphasizes in his review, The Goldfinch falls into “that common adaptation pitfall of fidelity without purpose; even if you haven’t read Tartt’s mammoth work, you may sense an absence. This is one of those page-to-screen follies that gives off the persistent impression, scene by scene, of a wealth of something being lost in translation.” And that something, when it comes to what makes the book special, is everything.
The novel, despite being told as a reflection of a life at the end of its story, progresses quite linearly, from childhood to adulthood, with none of the flashbacks and temporal jumping between timelines found in the film. Theodore “Theo” Decker is 13 years old when the book opens, his mother filling time with him one morning before a meeting with Theo’s principal (he’s been wrongly accused of smoking cigarettes and suspended) by taking him to the Metropolitan Museum Of Art. There, a terrorist bombing results in the deaths and injury of dozens of people—including Theo’s mom—sending Theo to live with his nerdy friend Andy Barbour’s family in their tony Park Avenue residence, where he begins to find a measure of contentment just in time for his absentee father to reappear and whisk him off to live in a mostly abandoned expansion community outside Vegas.
What Theo hasn’t told anyone is that, while sitting in the post-blast rubble and bonding with a dying antiquities dealer, Welton “Welty” Blackwell, the old man insisted he take a famed Dutch masterpiece, The Goldfinch, for safekeeping. Even after bonding with Welty’s good-natured partner, James “Hobie” Hobart, and developing a serious crush on Welty’s niece, Pippa (badly injured in the blast), he keeps the knowledge of the painting to himself, hiding it behind the headboard in his new Vegas home. While there, he befriends Boris, the son of a Ukrainian émigré, and the two boys spend the next year drinking, doing drugs, and forming a deeply emotional bond that constitutes one of the novel’s foundational elements. It comes to an end when Theo’s father, in debt to a bookie, crashes his car and dies, and Theo returns to New York to avoid entering the foster system, where Hobie takes him in as a ward and teaches him the art of antiques restoration.
Flash forward eight years (it’s not hard to see why people considered the novel dicey source material for a film), and we follow adult Theo, having turned Hobie’s failing fortunes around through some slick (and very illegal) sales of imitation works he’s passed off as the real deal. Soon one of his marks, Lucius Reeve, reveals that he knows that he was not only sold a fake, but also that Theo’s the only one who could have absconded with the painting all those years ago, and tries to blackmail him into selling it. Theo, still in thrall to the prescription drugs he developed a fondness for during his time with Boris, tries to juggle his growing fear of Reeve with his engagement to Kitsey, the youngest Barbour, all while still hopelessly in unrequited love with Pippa. And that’s all before Boris reappears to confess stealing the painting when they were kids, reveals it’s been taken from him, and enlists Theo’s help to get it back in a dangerous showdown in Amsterdam. Did we mention it’s a lot of book?
Because there’s so much ground to cover, the film chooses to simply depict key moments of the narrative, and doesn’t alter much in terms of the basic plot, even when it seems as though it could’ve benefitted from some judicious alterations. It’s a case of maintaining fidelity to the letter of the novel, instead of the spirit. And the short version of the book’s material—all the movie has to work with—is pretty simple: Bad things happen. Dealing with them via pharmaceuticals is an understandable reaction, and most of us are broken in one way or another. But we make it through this life via our bonds with others. It’s trite, but true, and by removing the demonstration of those bonds, it renders Theo’s journey as a series of unfortunate events that would make Lemony Snicket proud.
First his mother is killed. Then he’s taken from his caring adopted family and moved to Vegas with his shitty dad and his dad’s even shittier girlfriend. Then his father dies just as Theo is finding new life in his relationship with Boris (one that becomes sexual in the book, something not even really alluded to in the film), forcing him back to New York. Blackmail, being cheated on by his fiancée, losing the painting that has been his secret life raft amid all the chaos—there’s plenty of blame to direct at adult Theo, but it’s still a rough dance card of happenstance and harm. And by glossing over his relationships, Theo’s suicide becomes less of a tragedy, and more a “Yeah, I get it” situation.
The most egregious condensation of Theo’s relationships is with Boris. The movie not only excises most of the kids’ friendship (it takes up nearly 150 pages of the novel), but it obliterates the timeline as well, depriving us of even the benefit of a montage that could show the year elapsing and their bond forming. Instead, the movie suggests that the entirety of Theo’s sojourn to Vegas lasts for maybe a couple of weeks, tops. That’s not the basis for an enduring friendship, let alone one that becomes a defining factor in someone’s life. And sure enough, when Boris makes his reappearance in the film as an adult a short while later, it’s played almost for laughs, a wacky supporting player turning up again to say hi, rather than the person who had arguably the biggest influence on Theo suddenly re-entering his life.
Finn Wolfhard has a thankless task in portraying the garrulous Ukrainian; in his review, Dowd faults him for mugging his way through the role, but a more thoughtful film would’ve taken the time to show how Boris himself was constantly mugging, adopting a larger-than-life persona in just such a manner to deal with a life he found fundamentally absurd. Maybe Wolfhard’s performance wasn’t bad; maybe he’s the only one who got the book. As the painting is to Theo, so is Boris to Tartt’s The Goldfinch, the out-of-place work of art that ends up giving meaning to the whole. In Crowley’s film, he’s just comic relief.
But nearly everyone becomes a caricature in the movie’s abbreviated stand-ins for actual depth and subtlety. In the book, Theo’s father is also shown to be charismatic and charming, sometimes even affectionate, with his son, a nuanced and complex depiction of a subpar parent. In Luke Wilson’s three or four scenes, the dad is nothing but a one-note cautionary tale, a gambling degenerate with no allegiance to his son beyond what money he can extract. It’s a cartoonish character with little basis outside of mustache-twirling villainy. Similarly, Nicole Kidman’s Mrs. Barbour, so wonderfully ambiguous in the book, full of contradictions and icy distance, gets transformed into the epitome of thoughtfulness and care. This saintly makeover stings all the more because it strips Theo’s development of yet another source of push-pull affection. When adult Theo learns his friend Andy, Mrs. Barbour’s son, has died, it’s just a matter-of-fact beat of sadness, with no weight to give it profundity—just like every other tell-don’t-show development in Theo’s cinematic rendering.
Weirdest of all might be the film’s decision to jump back and forth in time in ways that hide crucial information from the viewer, then dole them out in lumpen beats on a need-to-know basis. We don’t learn of Theo’s drug use until it becomes necessary to the plot. We’re introduced to adult Kitsey just in time for her to cheat on him, thereby sparing us the burden of having to care in the slightest about their relationship. And the titular painting, with its role as the object of Theo’s undying obsession, is just a MacGuffin, no more meaningful than the Maltese Falcon—an irony underscored by a voice-over monologue about how meaningful art truly is. When the film delivers its happy ending, with smiles and inspiration and a milquetoast “maybe everything happens for a reason,” consider the lack of a cinematic equivalent to this passage, one of the last ones in the book, to give it substance:
Because I don’t care what anyone says or how often or how winningly they say it: No one will ever, ever be able to persuade me that life is some awesome, rewarding treat. Because, here’s the truth: life is catastrophe. The basic fact of existence—of walking around trying to feed ourselves and find friends and whatever else we do—is catastrophe. Forget all this ridiculous “Our Town” nonsense everyone talks: the miracle of a newborn babe, the joy of one simple blossom, Life You Are Too Wonderful To Grasp, &c. For me—and I’ll keep repeating it doggedly till I die, till I fall over on my ungrateful nihilistic face and am too weak to say it: better never born, than born into this cesspool.
Nothing in the movie approaches even one-tenth the intensity of such a passage. And if it looks bleaker in isolation, without the complex additions of philosophical morass that eventually helps tip the scales in some more sanguine direction (“yet to know as well, despite all this, as cruelly as the game is stacked, that it’s possible to play it with a kind of joy?”), the film’s hopefulness without bleakness is far more hollow—and as a result, far more bleak, in terms of the work’s ultimate value.
Start with: The book. It’s not even close. One is a fantastic work of fiction, a Pulitzer-winning meditation on loss, life, and the ways we will relentlessly ascribe meaning in the face of cosmic meaninglessness. The other is the latest in a long line of failed literary adaptations that confuse faithfulness to plot with fidelity to spirit.