When the negative reviews started rolling in for The Goldfinch a few weeks ago, I was pretty bummed. You’re telling me I read an 800 page long book for this shit?
Just kidding, I obviously read the book for the sake of reading something by Donna Tartt, an author I’ve admired since The Secret History! Still, I did wait until a few months before the film’s release to finally cross the 2013 novel off of my TBR list. If there’s anything good to come out of this movie’s existence, its that it gave me — and a lot of other people, I’m sure — an excuse to read a novel which, despite its page count and intimidating Pulitzer prize-winning status, is an utterly absorbing read. So, yeah, I went into the theater having adored the book, which already put the movie at a disadvantage. However, I am by no means a stickler when it comes to adaptations. Honestly, I’d rather a film cut more from the plot if it’ll make the story work better on screen. Faithfulness to source material and quality of an adaptation are not mutually exclusive.
In director John Crowley’s The Goldfinch, most of the elements of novel actually do remain intact, if condensed for the sake of time. But the film falls short over and over again in a way that’s hard to define, except to say what many reviews already have: it feels flat. For me, the reason comes down to one important misstep, and that’s the way this film handles the relationship between Theo and his mother.
(Minor spoilers for the book & film ahead.)
The film begins the same way the book does — with a framing narrative. We meet our narrator Theodore Decker in his mid-20s, distraught in an Amsterdam hotel room for reasons unknown to us. He tells us that he’s just had a dream about his mother, who died when he was young. We get the impression that his life is in ruins, and then we jump backwards in time to find out what led him to this point.
This is where the film and the book diverge. While the pieces that make up the story are basically the same, the order in which they’re told is significantly altered for the film, starting here: in the film’s first five minutes. It’s in these crucial moments that the film makes its biggest mistake, and unfortunately it never recovers.
In the book, the first thing we get is a detailed retelling of the last day Theo spent with his mother — the day of the museum bombing. We spend 50 pages getting to know Audrey Decker, both through Theo’s description and through her actions that morning. Their relationship is playful and fond, and we quickly get a sense of who Audrey is as she drags 13-year-old Theo through the labyrinthian halls of the Met, displaying her extensive knowledge of art history as she waxes poetic about the paintings of Rembrandt and Fabritius. The whole time, we know something bad is about to happen, and Tartt expertly mingles that anticipatory dread with Theo’s aching nostalgia for the last moments he spent with his mother. The events of this day set off the rest of the novel, which follows Theo chronologically from this point forward, eventually catching us up to that fateful trip to Amsterdam.
In the film, we cut straight from the Amsterdam frame to 13-year-old Theo in an interrogation room, answering questions about an accident of some kind. Little context is given, and its hard for me to imagine what I’d have been thinking at this point if I’d never read the book. Instead of showing us the explosion as a starting point, the tragedy itself becomes the main mystery of the film, a point of suspense delivered in pieces for the viewer to puzzle over as the film progresses. We get some visual flashes of what happened at the museum, and we repeatedly see a woman who we can only assume is Theo’s mother, but much like in Theo’s dreams, we can’t see her face. In fact, we don’t see her face until the very end of the film.
Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan assume that what makes The Goldfinch a story worth telling is the intrigue surrounding the stolen painting. The book might be called The Goldfinch, but it’s pretty obvious that the painting is not the point. The emotional core of the novel is Theo’s grief.
For Theo, everything comes back to the loss of his mother. As not to be “that bitch,” I’m going to limit myself to sharing just one passage from the novel, but hopefully this will give you some idea of how important this element of the story is:
“I hadn’t been at school since the day before my mother died and as long as I stayed away her death seemed unofficial somehow. But once I went back it would be a public fact. Worse: the thought of returning to any kind of normal routine seemed disloyal, wrong. It kept being a shock every time I remembered it, a fresh slap: she was gone. Every new event — everything I did for the rest of my life — would only separate us more and more: days she was no longer a part of, an ever-growing distance between us. Every single day for the rest of my life, she would only be further away.”
To be fair, the film does make us aware that Theo is grieving, but by excluding Audrey from the narrative it never gives us a chance to feel that grief with him — and so we have no anchor. We see that he’s angry and sad, but we have no idea what exactly it is that he’s lost, and we don’t know anything about who he was before he lost it. It’s easy, then, to float through the rest of this film feeling almost nothing. Why is he holding onto this painting, and why should we care? We don’t. We don’t understand that the painting itself matters to Theo because it mattered to his mother until the movie’s final scene, at which point it’s far too late for it to matter to us.
The only time the film comes close to achieving the emotional brilliance of the novel is in certain moments shared between Theo and his childhood friend Boris. The desperation of the bond they form and the conversations they have about their trauma are the only parts of the film that give us a real sense of what Theo lost. Again: it’s the element of human connection that makes this story tick, not the sequence of events that move us from point A to point B, and certainly not the concept of a stolen painting.
I can think of a number of things that could have been cut from this movie rather than the most important part of the book. So many parts of the story that were incredibly resonant on the page were lifeless on the screen, all because of the context we were missing. I really and truly believe that this movie would be twice as effective if this one thing had been different.
It’s unfortunate, because the other elements of the film add up to something almost resembling a satisfying whole: there are some genuinely good performances, Roger Deakins’ cinematography is lovely, and the world of the book does come alive on screen, from Pippa’s fairytale bedroom to the desert sprawl of suburban Las Vegas. But the pacing issues that resulted from the filmmakers’ attempts to make this a story of intrigue are what holds The Goldfinch back, starting with the decision to make Theo’s mother a mystery rather than the story’s driving force. With the inclusion of Audrey, the movie probably would have still been messy, but at least it would have had its heart.