The folly of faithfully adapting The Goldfinch
When Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch was published in 2013, The New Yorker's James Wood scathingly dismissed it as "a virtual baby." Not everyone was quite so repelled: The Goldfinch earned rave reviews in The New York Times, and won the Pulitzer Prize the following spring. Still, there were grumbles of protest from many critics: The Washington Post revisited the "disappointing novel that just won a Pulitzer Prize," while Newsweek's Alexander Nazaryan confessed that when he heard Tartt's book had been given the award, "I thought I was insane."
I felt similarly bewildered watching the big-screen adaptation of The Goldfinch this week. Tartt's novel hadn't been perfect (I gave it a mixed-positive review in 2013), but its flaws, at least, were evident: It was bloated and could drag; its conclusion was rushed and tonally miscalculated; it rang with disdain for people without education and taste. But if insanity is the repetition of something while expecting different results, then what was director John Crowley thinking when he set about faithfully duplicating all of Tartt's same mistakes?
At over 700 pages long, The Goldfinch took Tartt 11 years to write and hit shelves more than two decades after the publication of her more unanimously beloved debut, The Secret History. Often labeled "unadaptable" due in part to its bulk, The Goldfinch always struck me as actually being perfect for the big screen: When 13-year-old Theo Decker visits the Met with his mother, the pair become victims in a 9/11-like terrorist attack. Theo loses his mother in the bombing, but steals away with a priceless painting, Carel Fabritius' "The Goldfinch," after unthinkingly recovering it from the rubble. The painting is Theo's guilty secret, and he carries it with him from home to home: first to his wealthy friend's Upper East Side apartment; then to his deadbeat dad's suburban Las Vegas home; then finally to a New York antique shop, where Theo begins dealing forgeries.
By all appearances, that's a ready-to-assemble Oscar-winning vehicle: criminal intrigue! A dead mother! 9/11! It just needed some tune-up.
Judging by the final product, though, the maintenance light went ignored. Crowley and his team clearly belong in the camp of The Goldfinch's supporters, a bias that must have left them blinkered to its flaws (Ansel Elgort, who plays the protagonist Theo in the movie, has claimed it is "the greatest book I've read"). On the one hand, Crowley takes certain cues straight from the book: Tartt's attention to detail, say, where "even the tiniest things mean something" (and even the not-so-tiny; a skull memento mori inexplicably hanging on the wall of the hotel room in which Theo contemplates suicide doesn't exactly scream subtle). But there is also no excuse for stumbling into Tartt's exact same pitfalls.
The Goldfinch movie, for example, is bloated at two and a half hours long, while also falling pray to the kind of absurd simplicity that Wood slammed in his review. Screenwriter Peter Straughan (Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) was deaf to the ridiculousness of lines like Theo moodily intoning "I wear bespoke suits, I swim twice a week," or a villain cackling "oh poor, brave little bird, lost forever" (what?). There are also a number of silly coincidences; Theo, while looking for drugs, just happens to run into his old childhood friend Boris; he also just happens to be on the same street to see his fiancée smooching a rival. New York is small, sure, but not that small.
Things get sloppier at the film's end, when it suddenly transforms into an action movie about stealing back "The Goldfinch" painting. This decision makes no more sense to me on screen than it did when I was reading it for the first time back in 2013. It might actually make less sense, seeing as the movie is told through flashbacks, unnecessarily muddling Tartt's linear plotting. One Guardian commenter complained in 2014 that the novel's "whole Amsterdam sequence reads like a rejected plot-line from Mission Impossible," and it screens like one, too. Even Vulture's defense of the movie allows that The Goldfinch has an "incredibly rushed climax, where you can practically hear the first AD saying 'gotta wrap it up, gotta wrap it up' from offscreen."
The casting of Elgort, on the other hand, is particularly inspired, playing up the otherwise unremarked-upon smarminess of Theo, whose friends are kids you'd describe as "precocious" and who, at the age of 13, has opinions about the best Beethoven piece. Otherwise, though, the book's classist undertones go mostly unexamined; literary critic Lydia Kiesling once wrote, "my main complaint about Donna Tartt is that her writing can feel like a class sledgehammer," which, yes, and it is also yet another problem the film does nothing to remedy. Likewise, while the strongest part of the movie and book alike are when Theo is living in Las Vegas, the sections also share an unmasked contempt for any place that isn't New York.
Speaking at CinemaCon last spring, Elgort expressed hope that "whatever drew all those people to [The Goldfinch] will also draw them to the movie." That much, I think, will probably be true. But you can't skim the boring passages of a movie, nor can a film's narrative shortcuts be generously interpreted as Dickensian pastiche.
Such missteps could have easily been resolved with a little infidelity — trim the fat here, add an ounce of self-awareness there, and rework Tartt's terrible ending. No such luck: Crowley has made a loyal adaptation, glaring flaws and all.