To say that the movie adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize- winning novel “The Goldfinch” was a disappointment wouldn’t be completely true. The film was everything I expected it to be — a thin, poorly reproduced skeleton of the gorgeous prose that spans Tartt’s 800-page narrative. After reading many abysmal reviews, I was fairly prepared to be more or less unmoved by the performances in the film.
Unfortunately, the film did not manage to prove me wrong. Prior to its release, many predicted that the movie adaption would be capable of winning an Oscar. I don’t think anyone could have anticipated the negative reception it received.
Only a couple days after its release on Sept. 8 at the Toronto International Film Festival, many reviews from critics poured in. The overwhelming number of negative articles, coupled with the quick 24 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes made me very cautious about seeing the film. While there are aspects of the movie that were somewhat engaging, the incalculable number of missteps and liberties that its producers took in disassociating the movie from the book ultimately led the movie toward its lukewarm mediocrity. The decision to even try to adapt a novel that is introspective in essence was probably the first of many mistakes.
Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” is a novel that centers on the life of Theo Decker (Oakes Fegle as young Theo and Ansel Elgort as adult Theo) after a terrorist incident at the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he is 13 that leads to the death of his mother. After having stolen a painting from the museum during the chaos, the novel follows Theo’s attempts to grapple with the death as he goes down a troubled road of drugs, addiction, lies and heartbreak. Told from the perspective of Theo, the novel is mainly composed of his thoughts, rather than his actions. Importantly, these thoughts were not conveyed in the movie, making for a very dry and slow-paced narrative.
However, the lack of Theo’s voice was not the only problem. In a more structural manner, the film lacked consistency because of the irregular mixup of different scenes.The whole film felt devoid of any coherent motion or continuity. As a result, the narrative arc of the film was lacking because a lot of scenes were incongruently put together.
While Tartt’s novel follows events sequentially, the film darts between young Theo and adult Theo’s storylines haphazardly. Without even establishing anything concrete in young Theo’s timeline, the movie makes jarring jumps into adult Theo’s timeline, and then back again to young Theo. This happens multiple times throughout the film, and it becomes confusing, especially since viewers are not given the time to fully invest in the character development of young Theo or adult Theo without being shifted to a different storyline.
That being said, one of the bigger downfalls of this film was not showing the incident at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in its entirety. Unlike the novel, which spends a lengthy portion of the beginning detailing the bombing, the movie displays this scene in a series of flashbacks. Although relying on flashbacks to tell a story is not necessarily bad, there was no real consistency in how these scenes were incorporated. Flashbacks came at irregular times and were displayed sparsely throughout the film.
The bombing incident is what sets the whole story in motion and the decision to even put the first crucial scene of the story as a flashback was ultimately a poor choice. It is the catalyst for Theo’s disruptive life and hauntingly traumatic progression into adulthood. It is what predicates his drug addiction and pathological lying. So to squeeze this scene into 10-second flashbacks that appear only a few times throughout the film was a grave mistake, as the main emotional crux of the story is left scattered throughout an already disjointed narrative.
As a result, the film lacks any substantial emotional weight. It doesn’t even give you the chance to emotionally invest in any of the characters or the story, for that matter, leading to a completely lifeless and dry movie. The actors themselves had very lackluster performances, and did not bring anything special or inventive to the characters they portrayed. For instance, when Theo sees the Barbour family — the family that temporarily took him in after his mother’s death — again as an adult, the whole affair is very awkwardly portrayed, and the joy of seeing the Barbours felt comical and comparable to sitcom acting.
When Theo later professes his love for Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings), the girl that he meets and promptly falls in love with during the bombing incident, you’re left confused and not all that sympathetic because the nuanced aspect of Theo’s attachment to Pippa is not properly addressed. Even Theo’s attachment to his mother and the painting of the Goldfinch itself is questionable as his connection with both is not as earnestly conveyed as it is in the book.
Nonetheless, the film did try to replicate emotional scenes through very striking cinematography. And while the cinematography of the film was picturesque, it felt as though the movie relied heavily on aesthetic, cinematographic scenes to make up for the lack of emotional power and depth of the film. There would be scenes of adult Theo staring placidly into the distance for very long periods of time in a montage sequence, as though viewers were supposed to supplement some sort of meaning into these moments. The camera would zoom into characters’ faces as though seeing close-ups of a single tear running down a face would somehow make the viewer empathize with that character. The movie, consequently, operates under a lot of unconvincing emotional moments that come off as very manufactured and forced.
Lastly, what really made this movie difficult for which to stay in the theater was the portrayal of Theo himself and how much the movie omitted his original character. In the film, Theo is portrayed as a rather bland individual who just so happens to have made a couple bad choices. In the novel, however, Theo is plagued by a serious drug addiction, is a compulsive liar/con-artist and has a creepy, stalker-like obsession with a girl he barely knows. Although Theo is a very corrupt individual, the film tries to avoid a lot of his more destructive traits. Without these more ruinous qualities, we don’t get to see as much depth in Theo’s character development as we do in the novel and are instead left with a rather sloppy summation of what is supposed to be character development.
On a more positive note, I thoroughly enjoyed the acting performances of Finn Wolfhard as Boris, Theo’s close friend, and Fegley as young Theo during the part of the film’s plot set in Las Vegas. Although Wolfhard’s phony accent was a bit off-putting, both he and Fegley managed to convey the relationship between Boris and Theo to the same emotional degree as that in the novel. It was one of the more engaging parts of the film and held the most emotion.
Overall, however, I was right to not expect too much from this film. In all honesty, “The Goldfinch” was destined to flop to some degree. The greatness of the novel derives from the nuances and complex emotions steadily built along the course of 800 pages. The prose that Tartt introduces in her novel allows for readers to see how various damaging behaviors repeat themselves. It’s a slow-burning novel, but the payoff is worth it and we get to see a very tragic, complex story unfold. To try to adapt this prose into a two-hour movie seems nearly impossible, as none of the subtle nuances of the novel were captured in the film, making for a very dry and boring viewing.