I’m always somewhat wary whenever I learn that a novel I’ve read is to be adapted to the screen, especially when the novel in question is one I hold very close to my heart. I always believed that “The Goldfinch,” Donna Tartt’s brilliant and incredibly popular 2013 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, was too introspective a tale to visualize, too contained within its protagonist’s head to tell through any medium other than prose. How does one possibly do justice to a 700+-page book that spans decades and continents, within the duration of a single feature film?
“The Goldfinch” movie is proof that you can’t. Or, at least, director John Crowley (“Brooklyn”) couldn’t. Though the film stays faithful to the events of the novel, in the process it strips the book of precisely what made all 771 pages of it worth reading in the first place — complex character relationships, a captivating, sympathetic narrative voice and, perhaps most importantly, a story so immense, so unforgettable it might just be one of the 21st century’s great coming-of-age odysseys.
“The Goldfinch” is the story of Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker whose life is torn apart after he loses his mom in an art museum explosion. Theo emerges from the wreckage with the original copy of Carel Fabritius’s “The Goldfinch.” From then on, the plot carries Theo from New York to Las Vegas to Amsterdam, where he meets new people who alter the course of his life. Yet, despite all of his movement, everything always comes back to this painting, this little bird, both Theo’s greatest burden and greatest treasure, a reminder of both his crime and the last time he saw his mother. Theo’s love for his mother and struggle to recover from her loss is unquestionably the heart of the novel, the thing that keeps it beating on, the thing that motivates every single thing Theo does. And the painting is the manifestation of that feeling. Even when the painting is not at the forefront of the story, it is always, always there.
The movie appears to have forgotten this. In fact, it hardly feels like the painting and all it represents is present at all. The movie touches on everything that happens after the explosion, but fails to adequately emphasize the lasting power of Theo’s grief, which in many ways is a central point of the story. Young Theo, played by Oakes Fegley (“Pete’s Dragon”), does the best he can, but the script simply doesn’t give him enough room to properly emote. The parts of the film led by Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”) as an older Theo are significantly weaker in expressing the character’s anguish, largely because of the script’s heavy reliance on cringeworthy exposition, where the movie literally tells us how Theo feels, instead of showing it as a visual medium should.
If anything could have saved “The Goldfinch,” it would have been its cast. Led by Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman (“Boy Erased”), Sarah Paulson (“American Crime Story”) and Jeffrey Wright (“Westworld”), the performances at the very least should have been excellent. Yet, no one shines — whether due to the weakness of the script or the actors I still can’t tell. Certain performances, particularly Finn Wolfhard (“It”) as Boris and Luke Wilson as Theo’s dad (“The Royal Tenenbaums”) are laughable.
“The Goldfinch” is a disappointment in every respect, both as an adaptation and a standalone film. Its director has turned a richly moving epic into a glorified Lifetime made-for-TV movie. My advice? Skip the film and read the book instead.