Review: ‘The Goldfinch’ fails to live up to novel’s standard

by Lauren Segal | 9/17/19 2:00am

When word broke that Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch” would be adapted into a movie last year, I sighed and dreaded the worst. There is something sacred that is destroyed when a much-beloved novel makes its on-screen debut. Movie adaptations of novels rarely do their written counterparts justice. Instead, they bury them in piles of scathing reviews and Rotten Tomato ratings that sully not only the film’s reputation but also that of the novel (for example, “The Hunger Games”). Similarly, while “The Goldfinch” as a film failed miserably in recreating the vivid characters and atmosphere of Tartt’s imagination, it partly redeemed itself by creating a standalone experience that did not feel derivative of the novel and managed to preserve the novel’s enduring beauty. 

Based on a 962-page novel, “The Goldfinch” has a convoluted, twisted plot following the life of Theodore “Theo” Decker from his childhood, starting with his traumatic experience of losing his mother in a terrorist bombing at a New York museum, in which he obtained a painting titled “The Goldfinch.” The story follows Theo as he matures throughout a tumultuous, difficult life full of familial trauma, substance abuse and other complications, all while experiencing guilt and regret from stealing the priceless painting that he feels is too late to return. As much as the plot follows decades of a character’s life, the book is deliberately focused on being well-paced; it moves skillfully through various locations and takes the time needed to cultivate convincing relationships between Theo and other characters to avoid confusing the reader. The film, on the other hand, in its rush to fit a saga into a duration that is palatable for a feature film, feels disjointed, confused and overall exhausting to watch. 

The film begins with an older Theo, played by Ansel Elgort, haunted by the memories of his childhood and its intertwining with the titular painting. He monologues in a disjointed and vague manner, cursing his own actions that follow the aforementioned bombing, which set his life down a dark path, before the film cuts to a younger Theo (portrayed by Oakes Fegley) sitting in the living room of his temporary caretakers whom he stays with after his mother’s abrupt death due to the bombing. If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. Personally, I understood this sudden jump in chronology — it was written into the book, which I had read prior to watching the film, and it made sense since older Theo was flashbacking. But what I felt was unnecessary and distasteful was the excessive use of flashbacks and vignettes that the film abused for the entirety of its running time. While the novel does include an older Theo’s voice looking back at the events following the museum incident, the film skipped around to the extent that I felt as if I was watching a series of clips, not a grand, overarching story.

Theo’s life, as told by the film, clearly splits into three separate segments that should be paced so that there is time for each segment to fully and be comprehensive, but the filmmakers seemed to be operating under the assumption that these individual segments can be scrambled at will. The three segments — Theo’s life in New York City after the museum bombing, in Las Vegas with his father and his father’s new girlfriend and finally, in Amsterdam, wallowing in his own misery after discovering that the painting was stolen by a close friend — are all plotlines that are complex enough to be their own films and should be preserved in chronological order. But instead, they are spliced and jumbled in a way that underplayed the plot’s strength as a lifelike tale that closely follows Theo and overplays its weakness as a long-winded, convoluted mess. The movie flits between these three parts and disregards the importance of chronology — essential to memoir-like stories — which led me to be confused regardless of the fact that I had read the book. I imagine that the film was even harder to follow for those who hadn’t.  

Perhaps the film’s disjointed nature comes from a place of artistic inspiration in an attempt to distill the novel’s profound, luxurious storytelling. If anything can be said about the novel, it’s that it holds a powerful aura — a quiet, reverent glow, if you will — in the way that Tartt discusses art, history and human destruction at the hands of it. Tartt paints a story of stolen art and tragedy in a romanticized way reminiscent of old European classics, but translated on screen it comes off as stilted, not reverent. The film focuses a little too much on the aesthetic of the story, butchering and re-plating the novel to serve the eyes and not the mind.

The film’s cinematographic and narrative choices act like a velvet rope in front of a painting; while watching, I felt held at a distance and prevented from breaching the story’s uptight, pretentious façade in order to truly comprehend Theo’s perspective and understanding of the adversities he experienced in the wake of the bombing. The two-and-a-half-hour runtime felt like a fever dream of mediocre acting and screenshots of what the filmmakers thought the book looked like.

Indeed, the film also faces the inevitable problem all movie adaptations must as they attempt to condense a several-hundred-page book into 149 minutes. Massive amounts of the detail that made the book so special are lost in the process, raising the question: How badly did this film butcher the novel? 

Surprisingly, the movie did not ruin the book for me. “The Goldfinch” on-screen, in its confusing vignettes and stilted storytelling so uncharacteristic of the legendary original, detaches itself from its originator and thus allows one to not enjoy it as its own entity. In other words, the film is so poorly constructed compared to the masterpiece that it tried to adapt, losing all features that made the book unique that I had no choice but to see the film as a subpar standalone product, and therefore it didn’t taint my love for the original novel. 

“The Goldfinch” perfectly demonstrates the errors filmmakers commit when executing novel adaptations. In fact, it fails in so many ways, deviating so far from the exemplary work the novel is, that it did not kill the wonder that is Tartt’s “The Goldfinch.” Perhaps it may even whet the viewer’s appetite, enticing them to pick up the book for the real experience. 

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