Why the Film Adaptation of Pulitzer Prize Novel ‘The Goldfinch’ Failed


Fourteen-year old Oakes Fegley as young Theodore Decker

Brooklyn director, John Crowley’s adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, The Goldfinch, was anticipated to be an award season hit prior to its release on September 13, 2019. However, the reviews are in and critics are less than unimpressed with the adaptation. With a star-studded cast from the likes of Nicole Kidman to Ansel Elgort, and academy award-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins, viewers may wonder just what went wrong with the highly anticipated adaption?

Most reviews point to a mistranslation of the original source material as the central issue. Donna Tartt’s distinguished 771-page novel presents a vast landscape of complex characters intertwined throughout a span of over a decade, presenting numerous themes on human relationships with art. In Tartt’s novel, thirteen-year-old Theo Decker survives a terrorist bombing of the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and loses his mother. Throughout the novel, we follow Theo’s journey as he clings to the last connection he has to his mother — a miniature painting, Fabritius’ The Goldfinch, which he stole from the rubbles in the aftermath of the bombing.

Tartt’s depth and detail in writing draws many readers into the world of underground art and the intricate relationships between humans and the objects we cling to in times of desperation. It also explores addiction and the convoluted relationships that occur as a result of such immense trauma as that which Theo experiences. The task of converting such a profound work with multiple themes into a box office hit is no easy task, and The Goldfinch film seems to have just missed its mark.

While the cinematography of The Goldfinch was greatly impressive in bringing the ornate details of Tartt’s writing to life, the film is considered by many critics to be an empty shell of the haunting emotional depth that was so prevalent in the novel. ‘Flat’ is the term that comes up frequently in numerous reviews. The film itself is a choppy, mash-up of various key scenes from the book, edited much like the mind of a trauma-filled addict. While artistically abstract, it distracts the viewers from the central themes and poorly conveys the range and complexity of individual characters. Fundamental scenes rush by like a passing train as viewers try desperately to grasp the resolution of this two-and-a-half-hour tale but are only left with a supercut of slight action between incessantly repetitive clips of Theo’s mother walking away from him. While the book’s final chapter defines the entire story, wrapping together the entirety of Theo’s experiences with epiphanies on the meaning of life, the movie fails to represent this, leaving viewers asking themselves— Wait, was that it?

Some point to a misuse of talented actors as the main cause of this ‘flatness’, while the actors do their best to submerse themselves in these roles, they aren’t given much to work with.  The script deeply lacks an explanation of the events that occur; Theo’s thoughts are sporadic for a story that is so deeply based on the inner mechanisms of his mind. When his inner thoughts are presented, they come off as a straight-read of a random quote pulled from the novel rather than hitting the emotional cues it should have. Nicole Kidman’s role as Mrs. Barbour, a minor character throughout the novel, is expanded at the expense of important characters such as Pippa Blackwell (Ashleigh Cummings) and Boris Pavlikovsky (Finn Wolfhard, Aneurin Barnard) which are glossed over and reduced to caricatures of Theo’s past rather than real people. If these relationships were explored more, and if the script had highlighted more of Theo’s thoughts, the movie would have likely conveyed more emotional depth.

Or maybe the issue is simply that the film is based on a book that seems to be a hit-or-miss among many. After winning the Pulitzer Price in 2014, The Goldfinch novel itself received much criticism from the literary community. While Donna Tartt’s universe of New York antique furniture shops and haze-filled Vegas nights draws the reader in, Theodore Decker is an unlikeable character and a deeply unreliable narrator. Decker justifies his deeply immoral actions with his trauma and this abstract idea of how art surpasses humans and he oozes endless nihilism throughout. And many also add that this conclusion of the importance of art is a rather simple one for a 771-page book that reveals little character growth. But in some ways, that can also be argued as a true reflection of how some people are, especially those impacted by trauma.

Ansel Elgort as Theodore Decker

Nevertheless, it seems the film crashed into itself under the weight of such heavy themes. It’s very possible that it may have been doomed from the start despite its shiny, eye-catching packaging. Regardless, there is still a fair amount to learn from a story like this, and when approached with an open mind and vulnerability, it can reach into the depths at certain points and make us rethink our preconceived notions of life.

Despite the criticism, the film still holds a 73% audience rating in contrast to the 25% rating from critics. Perhaps fans of The Goldfinch are simply pleased with seeing the characters and scenes of their beloved nostalgia-inducing novel come to life on the big screen, which is very reflective of the novel’s central message — that whatever happiness it brings to you to love something that will exist beyond you is worthy and valuable. Perhaps for some that is enough.