The Goldfinch shows the perils of being too faithful to the book

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort sit together on a sofa in the movie “The Goldfinch.”

Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch. | Courtesy of TIFF

A lackluster adaptation of the Pulitzer-winning novel is unlikely to please even the book’s biggest fans.

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a book’s fans will complain about the movie version, and that’s fine. But more literary adaptations are wrecked by slavish source fidelity than by imaginative tweaks. Movies and books are different media, and they have to tell stories in different ways. As long as the original’s soul is preserved, everyone wins.

Which goes a long way toward explaining why The Goldfinch doesn’t work on screen, or at least not in John Crowley’s adaptation. Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning 2013 novel, a doorstop at nearly 800 pages, meanders (somewhat tediously, for my taste) through the youth and early adulthood of a boy named Theo. Along the journey, it contemplates philosophical matters, like the effects of trauma or blind chance on our life paths, or the possibility of authentic art. It is not an obvious fit for a feature-length film.

The problem lies largely in the screenplay. The Goldfinch was adapted by Peter Straughan, who’s written serious-minded adaptations before, like 2011’s Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, but also the truly atrocious 2017 The Snowman. I’m not much of a fan of Tartt’s novel, which repeats some of the self-seriousness of her 1992 murder mystery The Secret History (a book I love), but that feature becomes far less enjoyable at the much greater length.

But I think I’d rather re-read The Goldfinch than watch it again. Straughan’s screenplay strips out most of the novel’s heart in favor of plot fidelity, albeit with the pieces told out of order. No longer does it feel like we’re on a journey with Theo. Instead, we’re just observing what happened to him during his life, and there’s no reason to care about any of it.

The Goldfinch wastes most of what was great about the novel, and thus misses the point

Theo (played as a boy by Oakes Fegley and a young man by Ansel Elgort) loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and winds up adrift for years, shuttled from a friend’s family to his conniving father’s home in Las Vegas to a life in antique dealing back in New York. Along the way, Theo pines for a girl named Pippa, makes friends with a worldly wise kid named Boris, becomes engaged, sells some antique fakes, and keeps toting around a small 17th century Dutch painting of a goldfinch that he grabbed from the museum in the confusion following the explosion.

Unlike the novel, which unfolds chronologically, the film weaves around in circles without spending too much time anywhere in particular. Thus it mostly wastes its impressive cast, which includes Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Sarah Paulson, and Finn Wolfhard. Only Jeffrey Wright, who plays the antique restorer (and Theo’s guardian angel in the flesh) Hobie, seems to have space to do what he needs …read more

Source:: VOX

      

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