Needless to say, book-to-film adaptations often times fail to do many stories justice. Fans of multiple science fiction trilogies, dystopian novels and romantic comedies (the list is endless) would know. Regretfully, John Crowley’s adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel “The Goldfinch” is an unjust reflection of the complex yet compelling novel that tells the coming of age tale of loss, love, misfortune, and essentially, struggle to find belonging.
The film depicts the life of a boy named Theo, a New Yorker whose mother is killed by an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the MET). The loss of his mother leads to a troubled childhood for the main character, played by Oakes Fegley and later by Ansel Elgort, who has to move from one “home” to another and eventually descends into a world of crime.
The story is driven through the medium of a small Dutch Golden Age painting called “The Goldfinch” — which Theo picks up after rummaging through the debris of the museum bombing. This painting not only serves as the driving force of the plot, but is also emblematic of Theo’s deceased mother. The main character carries the painting with him everywhere he goes, only to find out after many years and much apprehension that he holds only a replica. As we come to find out alongside Theo, the original painting was stolen by his friend Boris, played adeptly by Finn Wolfhard and later Aneurin Barnard, who he met as a teenager in Nevada. Thus, the film encompasses Theo’s journey to recover the original painting. The painting, however, merely acts as a plot device, dismantling the importance it holds for the character’s love for his mother.
Although the film dilutes the complexity of the original narrative, it somehow manages to progress on a rollercoaster-like trajectory that often leaves the audience confused. Still, the movie deserves much credit when it comes to the impeccable and lucid cinematography. The artistic portrayal of the film makes one see New York City, where much of the plot takes place, as a warm wonderland where memories are stored and artistic history is nourished. It makes us feel like fleeing to a city, getting lost inside the galleries of the MET, but, oddly, also makes us connect with Theo as though he is a boy we once knew.
However, despite the masterful camera work and star-studded ensemble cast consisting of names such as Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Denis O’Hare, Jeffrey Wright, Ryan Foust and Willa Fitzgerald, the most the film achieves is faint echo of the heartbreaking and powerful journey Theo makes in finding happiness and inner peace as in Tartt’s novel. When watching the film, it is apparent that the director makes a sincere effort to stay faithful to the novel. He attempts to condense the original story and portray all the characters’ nuanced personalities and intense emotional journeys into two and a half hours. The film includes many lines lifted directly from the original text. Most notably when Theo speaks about his his mother — “When I lost her, I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me some place happier.” This indicates to the audience that Crowley is a fan of the novel like many who’ve read it. The fact remains, however, that being a fan of a piece of art and trying to reproduce it in one’s own way are two very different things. And, inconveniently, it is left to the audience of the “reproduction” to realize it is not the same as the original work. And that ironically happens to be the case when Theo realises the Goldfinch in his possession is a replica. It is excessive to say that fans of the novel, like myself, feel cheated by a fellow fan, such as the director, like Theo is by Boris in the story, but in this case, the mistake unfortunately is unredeemable. But fan or not, this movie definitely excels in perplexing the audience and there would be a very small niche (if one exists, that is) that viewed the motion picture as any form of golden artwork, with or without its technical brilliance.