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The Magic of ‘The Goldfinch’ Is Lost in Adaptation

Turning Donna Tartt’s blockbuster novel into a movie was always going to be a challenge … then filmmakers made things even harder on themselves

Warner Bros./Ringer illustration

The adjective most commonly associated with Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel The Goldfinch, first bestowed by New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani and widely echoed ever since, is “Dickensian.” The comparison is easy, and also accurate. The story of orphan Theo Decker spans tens of years, hundreds of pages, and many dramatic reversals of fortune; thanks to a subplot about high-end antique dealing, much of the action is directly rooted in the bygone era the structure recalls. Many of The Goldfinch’s other touchstones reach even further back into the province of fairy tale: tragic orphans; evil stepmothers; and in the book’s title object, an almost magical totem—a 17th-century Dutch painting the shell-shocked Theo takes from the site of the explosion that kills his mother.

But while specific parallels abound, the Dickens analogy proves truest in the novel’s immersive sense of detail. Tartt, the Mississippi-born Bennington grad and former wunderkind behind The Secret History, makes Theo’s journey feel at once of a time and place and outside of it. The death of Theo’s mother on a visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art puts him on a journey that takes him through post-9/11 New York, mid–housing crash Las Vegas, and Amsterdam in Christmastime. It also ensconces him in a West Village furniture shop that goes by the highly uncontemporary name of Hobart & Blackwell, where Theo assumes the quasi-Victorian role of ward to doting co-owner Hobie (whose late partner also died at the Met and urged Theo to abscond with The Goldfinch). Tellingly, the motivations behind the museum bombing are never explained beyond “a terrorist attack.” Tartt isn’t interested in anything so earthbound as ideology.

Beyond the logistical challenge of condensing reams of prose into a feature-length running time, preserving this feeling of weighted weightlessness is the foremost challenge in adapting The Goldfinch to film. Not that such roadblocks were ever going to stop an adaptation from coming to pass. A literary novel that managed to sell well into the millions of copies, The Goldfinch was destined for the slightly out of date conveyor belt it landed on. Major studios are no longer in the habit of financing mid-budget adult dramas, but Warner Bros. snapped up the rights. Movie stars—Nicole Kidman! Baby from Baby Driver!—were cast. Above-the-line talent conferred an air of prestige: Brooklyn director John Crowley; cinematographer Roger Deakins, in his first gig after winning an overdue Oscar for Blade Runner 2049. A premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, ancestral home of Academy Award campaigns, was set. It almost didn’t matter whether the movie itself was any good. The Goldfinch could coast into awards season by default.

And yet, as early reviews have near-unanimously contended, The Goldfinch is not good, even by the relatively low standard of karaoke-ing highlights from the book. Newcomers to Tartt’s story will come away mystified as to how the book became a phenomenon; fans will be disappointed by the film’s simultaneous reluctance to make necessary choices and the counterproductive, spell-breaking effect of those it does. As a movie, The Goldfinch has the same unmoored feel it does as a book, but without the texture assuring us Theo’s tale unfolds in a particular world—just not ours.

In Peter Straughan, The Goldfinch shares a writer with The Snowman, the ubiquitously memed MoviePass classic that achieved instant camp status upon release. The Goldfinch’s errors are neither as egregious nor as enjoyable. Instead, they start with a puzzling structural choice: depicting the attack not as a single event that clearly sets up all that happens thereafter, but a series of fragmentary flashbacks that obscure key relationships and causalities. The viewer sees Theo walking into the fusty Upper East Side home of his new benefactors before we fully grasp the trauma that put him there or the sense of loss that follows. It’s not until late in the movie that we understand when Theo took the painting, why, or its emotional significance to him. And we never understand why Straughan and Crowley have opted to chop up their narrative’s inciting incident.

Theo is played as a child by Oakes Fegley and as an adult by noted DJ, basketball enthusiast, and occasional actor Ansel Elgort. Rather than showing a linear evolution from one into the other, the film depicts the relationship between Theo’s adolescent and adult selves as scrambled as his psychological origin. Theo spends his first weeks after the accident with the dysfunctional yet welcoming Barbours, a family whose WASPy chill is suitably implied by casting Kidman as its matriarch. Still, even the intentional fustiness of the Barbours feels stale, a generic mishmash of sailing anecdotes and Fair Isle sweaters in a culture teeming with more finely observed portraits of extreme wealth. Things pick up when Theo’s deadbeat father (Luke Wilson) and his girlfriend (Sarah Paulson) drag him from his Manhattan idyll to exurban Vegas—but no sooner has Theo arrived there than The Goldfinch jerks us into the future.

There’s something to be written about the casual snobbery implied in Theo’s fall from grace: benevolent aristocrats like the Barbours, good; tacky Sun Belt strivers like Theo’s new caretakers, bad. But the audience can barely engage with The Goldfinch’s class fable, because it’s awkwardly chopped into incoherent pieces. Before Theo can settle into the hypnotic, sun-baked stasis that forms the middle stretch of Tartt’s book, before he can enter into the formative friendship that makes up so much of its appeal, the movie throws us into an adult Theo’s entanglements with drug abuse, a loveless relationship, and furniture fraud. The two-timeline device is baffling, showing the effects of Theo’s neglected, mournful childhood without their cause. Perhaps the intent is to create a sense of psychological mystery, although Elgort’s performance doesn’t generate much suspense about the character’s hidden depths. Apart from the flash-forward to an Amsterdam hotel room that bookends both versions, Tartt’s novel is far more linear, and more effective; by rearranging itself, The Goldfinch essentially makes an already heavy lift even heavier than it has to be.

At two and a half hours, Straughan doesn’t streamline Tartt’s behemoth, with precious minutes given over to voice-over that’s more pontification than exposition. Yet the movie also gives the feeling that long passages have been inelegantly yanked from its core. The genesis and duration of Theo’s scam, in which he passes off Hobie’s patchwork restorations as genuine artifacts, are omitted; just the moment when he’s found out remains. In one scene, Theo meets the all-grown-up Barbour scion Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald); mere minutes later, they’re engaged. Rather than kill its darlings, The Goldfinch turns them into a confusing jumble of fat that could be excised and meat that’s been sliced too thin.

The movie both drags and skips—a genuine feat, if not the one it’s attempting. At times, The Goldfinch makes space for the enchantment Tartt once wove. Finn Wolfhard’s Russian accent is atrocious, if endearingly so, but he captures the maverick charm of Theo’s friend Boris, a fellow lost soul spinning his wheels in the desert. A scene where the two cannonball into a pitch-black swimming pool—Theo’s dad can’t afford, or just won’t bother, to keep the lights on—may be clichéd, but represents one of the few moments when The Goldfinch actually tries to be cinematic. As the two wrestle and giggle, drunk and high and mind-blowingly bored, they forge a connection that survives both time and the transplant to screen. By the movie’s end, we don’t understand what the feckless, underdeveloped Theo has done to earn his inevitable storybook ending. But we understand a part of what got him there and know we could’ve grasped more.