Oct 3rd, 2019, 12:00 AM

The Goldfinch: Lost in Adaptation

By Lydia Wiernik
Theo Decker (Ansel Elgort) and the painting. Image Credit: Warner Bros. Pictures
"If Every Great Painting is a Self-Portrait," Then The Goldfinch's Film Adaptation is a Blank Canvas

John Crowley’s film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch was released on 18 September. The 2013 Pulitzer Prize winning novel was universally well-received, but the film did not enjoy the same accolades. 

The Goldfinch on-screen presents a remarkably surface-level reading of the novel, diluting it to the dirge of an unfortunate childhood and subsequent descent into the world of art forgery.

The 800-page narrative is anything but shallow. Spanning 10 years of tormented protagonist Theodore Decker’s life, The Goldfinch is a poignant, deftly constructed bildungsroman in the face of loss and mental illness. Theo’s fixation with Carel Fabritius’ titular 1654 painting is not solely because of the art itself, rather what and whom it represents. 

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius (1654). Image credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

Fabritius’ bird is the focus of Theo (Ansel Elgort) and his mother’s (Hailey Wist) visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. After his mother shares her love for the painting with her son, she tells Theo she is going to see another work in the next room. Moments later, she is killed in a sudden explosion. 

Theo’s mother’s violent death directly mirrors Fabritius’ own, in a studio explosion that incinerated nearly all of his work. Remarkably, The Goldfinch, painted on wood, was one of the surviving pieces.

Like the bird, Theo survives the blast, waking up alone and forgotten in the rubble. With him, he takes the painting, now the physical manifestation of his love for his mother. Theo carries the priceless painting with him his entire life, keeping his mother close to him without consideration for its larger cultural relevance of 17th century Dutch art.

Theo’s obsession with the chained bird is an example of Freudian displacement, a form of unconscious self-preservation wherein the brain replaces moments of trauma with the transferal of emotions onto a new object. Theo’s PTSD is a permeable, omnipresent force in The Goldfinch, yet the film hardly touches on mental illness. 

The Goldfinch is, in the most fundamental sense, a story about connection. 

It is a story about common identification with art, whether that be prose, a painting, a piece of music, or a chaise lounge: “Isn’t that the whole point of things — beautiful things — that they connect you to some larger beauty?” (Tartt 757). Yet this link, the very essence of the novel, is absent from the film.

Those who connected with the novel are robbed of its ending: where is the reconciliation? The last chapter of The Goldfinch rectifies the ruptured bond between Theo and his father figure and business partner, Hobie (Jeffrey Wright). But the film leaves Hobie upset with Theo, something that twists The Goldfinch’s reparations into unresolved hostility between a character who suffered trauma and the only person who helped relieve it. 

Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) and young Theo (Oakes Fegley) in Hobie's antiques workshop. Image credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

Crowley’s film also lacks significant details. On screen, Theo’s fiancée, Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald), is not wearing the emerald earrings Theo gifted her during their lavish engagement party. This seemingly trivial detail is exactly the opposite: the earrings were the last physical remnant of Theo’s mother, one of her only possessions not sold by Theo’s abusive alcoholic father. 

Theo, now nearing thirty, is still as affected by his mother’s death as he was at thirteen. Theo’s definition of love is intricate: is his father’s care (ill intentioned but care nonetheless) love? Is his relationship with childhood friend Boris love? Theo knows love to be his mother, therefore reapplies this definition to the manifestation of her as the painting and as the emerald earrings. At his engagement party, Theo finally feels he can share something of his mother’s with someone with whom he believes he is in love. This is of huge significance to Theo’s character, yet it is discarded in the film.

Crowley’s exemption of this detail does a disservice to Tartt’s craft and to Theo’s recovery. 

Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald) and Theo (Ansel Elgort) at their engagement party. Kitsey is not wearing the emerald earrings. Image credit: Warner Brothers Pictures

But Crowley did not make every misstep in his interpretation of The Goldfinch. Donna Tartt’s infamous never-ending stories — her debut The Secret History is over 500 pages; her sophomore work The Little Friend nears 600 — are, in Crowley’s Goldfinch, tastefully abridged. The film, already running at 2 ½ hours, would have despaired to be any longer, though a part of The Goldfinch’s mastery is in its length. 

In 800 pages, Tartt is able to carry the reader through Theo’s psyche so deeply as to understand him as one understands themselves. Her writing, in this way, is enchanting. 

Crowley could have cut the same amount of content but organized the scenes in a way that made Theo’s plight as it is: internalized; repressed; convoluted. Despite its length, the film moves quickly, and one does not fully understand Theo, as is necessary to glean anything from The Goldfinch. There is no opportunity to identify with him, a feature that makes his character and the novel so mesmerizing. 

Another positive perception in Crowley’s film is the retention of Theo’s relationship with Boris Pavlikovsky (Finn Wolfhard). Boris, like Theo, is a loner; they are drawn to one another because of otherness. Theo’s feelings towards Boris are romantic. Boris acknowledges their affection: “We were young, and needed girls. I think maybe you thought it was something else” (Tartt 555). Theo, however, denies it; he is majorly repressed, partly because of his PTSD, and skeptical of the definition of love and how he is allowed to act upon his feelings.

Tender scenes between Theo and Boris are kept in the film. In one sequence, Theo wakes up from a nightmare about the explosion and Boris, in bed next to him, holds him close to calm him. In another, when Theo is running away from his abusive father’s home, Boris kisses him. 

Though Crowley has been applauded for refusing to “straighten” The Goldfinch, he has also been accused of queerbaiting. This term refers to a marketing technique used to attract an LGBT+ audience while still pandering towards others by hinting at a homosexual relationship yet not carrying it any further. 

The second trailer for the film reveals the kiss. While it is true that Theo harbors romantic feelings for Boris, it is in no way the point of the novel. 

Because of its misconstrued promotion, many associate The Goldfinch with an incomplete representation of Theo and Boris’ relationship. In the novel, their relationship functions as the much larger concept of Theo’s labyrinthine relationship with love, in any form.

Boris Pavlikovsky (Aneurin Barnard) and Theo (Ansel Elgort). Image credit: Warner Brothers Pictures 

Was Crowley’s adaptation a failure? As the 6th worst American opening since records began in 1982, one could consider The Goldfinch a major loss of potential. But maybe it is not Crowley’s whose adaptation is to blame: it is any adaptation at all. 

Perhaps this art, this beautiful connector, is unable to withstand the boundary of medium because a transformation invariably coincides with a change in meaning. 

There must then exist two separate Goldfinches: the first to preserve the unadulterated emotion, the second to make the content accessible. The first inspires self reflection, something one can only glean from a personal reading, without a layer of someone else’s (Crowley’s) interpretation.

To view a film adaptation of a novel is seeing a story through a secondary lens, one that is perhaps not as affecting as one would separately internalize. We must self-interpret art to find meaning in it. The Goldfinch does not believe in universality: its message is that we are connected by art because we all see something different in it. The painting represents something different for Hobie and Boris and Mrs. Decker and Theo — the list continues indefinitely. In this way, film creates a collective perspective without individual thought. Therefore, it is impossible to effectively adapt The Goldfinch to the screen. 

The Goldfinch was cut and smoothed to be more widely comprehensible and marketable. But what is the point in this, in the inability to savor the unique take-away of reading a novel centered around meaning? If one cannot find their special meaning in the film, then The Goldfinch has failed as a story. It is no longer widely comprehensible because there is nothing to comprehend. 

Film adaptations of beloved novels are often critiqued for inaccuracy. The Goldfinch’s misrepresentation on-screen, though disappointing, is not a reflection of the novel itself. Independent of the film, even if it had been successful, The Goldfinch’s true potential is dependent on personal interpretation, a conclusion only reached through an intimate connection with the written word.