The Goldfinch fails exactly where so many other adaptations have in the past

This prestigious adaptation of the beloved Donna Tartt book is a polished but superficial version of a great story.

It’s not that adapting a 770-page book into a film is an inherently bad idea, but it does make you wonder who the intended audience is. Die-hard fans of the book? Many will be disappointed with the omissions and creative choices. Movie fans who have never heard of the book? Unfortunately, The Goldfinch isn’t a great film once divorced from its source material. People who have had a copy on their shelves for years, have never read it but still want to get the gist of it? Maybe, since the half-baked plot points in the film might still prove intriguing enough to sway the uninitiated into seeking out the fully cooked version. Nicole Kidman fans? Definitely. 

Directed by Brooklyn director John Crowley and based on the Pulitzer prize-winning novel by Donna Tartt, The Goldfinch falls into the same trap that many film adaptations of novels do: not enough of the book’s essence and too much fidelity to its plot make it into the final product. Crowley’s nearly two-and-a-half hour adaptation feels like a rush to the finish line, where every scene is a polished but superficial rendering of its written version. The Goldfinch, a Dickensian epic that follows its characters over the course of 20-odd years through the eyes of Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley, and, as an adult, Ansel Elgort), tells the story of what happens after Theo is one of the few survivors of a bombing at the Met that kills his mother. Waking among the dust, debris and corpses, Theo is searching for the exit when a dying man deliriously instructs him to take Carel Fabritius’s Golden Age painting “The Goldfinch” with him. It’s unclear even in the book why Theo walks out with the painting without question. Impaired judgement? Fear? PTSD? The aftermath of this rash decision fuels the rest of the story. 

Part of what the novel excels at is its lush description of characters and places. Set in New York, Las Vegas and Amsterdam, the story captures the essence of each city with a painterly eye. Director of photography Roger Deakins is an excellent choice to convey the changes in light and shadows that each city carries differently. The film is beautiful; an aesthetic treat from beginning to end, but ultimately lifeless. For a story about art history, the film was at a clear advantage when simply representing the art that these characters spend their life with. Fabritius’s painting obsesses the characters. It tethers Theo to the memory of his mother, who loved the painting, and to the traumatic event that upended his life. But this obsession is told through narration more than it is shown, besides the odd shot of Theo cradling the painting. There is little interiority to the film and Ansel Elgort’s performance. The bulk of the narration that we get is expository information ripped straight from the book, unaffecting in its on-screen delivery. 

A film adaption should be able to stand on its own, but The Goldfinch feels like it’s frightened to assert its independence from the book. Most cinematic adaptations of epic novels differentiate themselves by omitting, not adding. And it’s true that adding scenes and characters might seem like a poor waste of space if you already have more than enough to choose from, but acquiescing to the source material can be more constraining than straying from it. Comparison is inevitable and the odds are not in your favour if you’re adapting a beloved novel, so why not just duck out of the race and chose a different entry point if you can? Direct equivalency shouldn’t be the end goal.

That being said, The Goldfinch does play around with structure, cutting back and forth between Theo as a child in New York and Las Vegas and as an adult in New York and Amsterdam. And yet, even this feels more like a device to save time. Flashbacks allow you to cut back and forth without having to set up the scene: you can dive straight into a character’s memory which automatically gives the scene some weight. It must be important if the character is remembering it, right? Theo’s struggle with his memories of his mother and the bombing are never given more than a shallow understanding.

Fans of Nicole Kidman and Sarah Paulson, however, will not be disappointed. Perfectly cast, both actors deliver compelling, specific performances that aren’t limited by the weak script. Kidman can make even a parting glance feel like it hides a well of significance. Paulson plays her trashy character without reducing it to a caricature, but imbues her with an unsophisticated profoundness. It’s a shame that there’s not more of the two of them. 

All in all, The Goldfinch is a disappointing plot-point summary of the book. It’s so indebted to the novel that it forgets to ask what makes the book so compelling. Is it the plot? Clearly not. Like any story, it’s not so much about what you say than how you say it — and why. Sadly, this story feels like its main focus is to get to the end. ■

The Goldfinch opens in theatres on Friday, Sept. 13. Watch the trailer here: