It’s been a rough few weeks for The Goldfinch. The film adaptation of Donna Tartt’s 2013 novel from Brooklyn director John Crowley was unveiled at the Toronto International Film Festival earlier this month and was immediately met with a, let’s say, middling reception. Indiewire’s scathing review said it’s a “gauzy, bloated slab of Oscar bait,” while Little White Lies called it “cinema as taxidermy.” And then it got worse.
Convincing any cinemagoer to part with their $15 for a dour drama can be a hard sell, even with all the gold star calibre behind it. The Goldfinch is not only a critical failure, it’s a financial failure too—earning just $2.6 million on opening weekend, it’s now the sixth worst opening of all time for a film playing on more than 2,500 screens. To put it simply: The Goldfinch is a flop.
Before it even had a chance to spread its wings, The Goldfinch faced an uphill struggle. At around 800 pages, Donna Tartt’s Dickensian opus about trauma, drug addiction and art theft is a behemoth to adapt, and it’s perhaps the most divisive Pulitzer Prize winner ever. Condensing Tartt’s novel into a two-hour movie presents its own challenges, but the unavoidable baggage only makes an insurmountable task even more onerous.
Every awards season has its major casualty, and The Goldfinch looks to be this year’s unfortunate victim. But is it actually bad? Hot take incoming: no.
Disclaimer: I’m extremely biased. I read the book out of curiosity after watching the film’s trailer just over a month ago and immediately fell in love with it. I was absorbed by Theo’s fascinating journey, which spirals from the explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that kills his mother. I revelled in Tartt’s lengthy commentary on the inconsequential minutiae of Theo’s life that covers everything but the Carel Fabritius painting he steals that fateful day. At various points, you wonder if the manuscript ever passed through an editor, but it’s the kind of pompous nonsense that I live for.
By preserving virtually every plot point from Tartt’s brick of a novel, The Goldfinch is exemplary of the perils of staying too faithful to the source material—but in doing so, the movie adaptation also embodies everything that makes Tartt’s prose such a page-turner. Some parts of Theo’s life are just plain boring, and yet the film makes the effort to include them. There are narrative threads that go nowhere, like Theo’s failed engagement or his weird obsession with the girl who stood next to him when the bomb went off. The film could’ve easily dropped these in favor of adding more meat to the many other plotlines going on, but retaining almost everything is a dedication to what Tartt was going for: that Theo has been dealt the worst hand in every facet of his life.
Theo (played by Oakes Fegley as a teen, and Ansel Elgort as an adult) is so passive, he’s practically a ghost. Like a visitor in a museum, he is a mere spectator to a revolving door of sad events, and it makes him a great vehicle for empathy. Fegley, who did wonderful work in Pete’s Dragon and Wonderstruck, is a revelation—carrying unthinkable panic and destroyed innocence in his tiny frame. Elgort does a fine job too in embodying the character’s quiet stoicism—the result of years of repressed emotions.
Everything revolves around the day Theo loses his mother. “When I lost her I lost sight of any landmark that might have led me someplace happier,” he says. Just before his whole world is shattered, Theo’s mother points to her favorite painting in the museum: a small bird shackled to its perch. And in the subsequent years when he’s forcibly moved from New York to Las Vegas and back again, the only object of permanence is the painting—and even that gets taken away from him.
One criticism I’ve seen is that the film ignores the significance of the painting because it’s rarely shown, and when it is, it’s hidden beneath layers of newspaper, clumsily wrapped by Theo. But the painting mostly serves as a representation of the aftershock of trauma. It’s Theo’s reluctance to let go of the one event that pains him most. When a man named Patrick Vialaneix stole a Rembrandt he was obsessed with, he said that he was the painting’s “guardian but also its hostage.” For Theo, holding onto the painting is an act of self-preservation, but he also holds himself emotionally hostage. The painting is everywhere: it’s in the parental surrogates he clings to, it’s in his fascination with the antiquated, it’s in the drink and drugs he consumes to forget.
I will concede that the film’s fatal flaw is the decision to fragment the bombing. While Tartt spends the first 80 pages just on this single day, Crowley chooses to build it piece-by-piece through occasional flashbacks, making for a confusing watch when certain events require the context. This non-linear structure is contentious and sometimes nonsensical, but it allows the story to draw parallels between the younger and older Theo that the novel never could. Theo has a remarkably unhappy life both at 15 and at 25—it’s as if the explosion triggered the pause button, and Theo has been living in stagnation ever since.
And honestly, The Goldfinch is way more interesting if you interpret the relationship between Theo and his best friend Boris (Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Barnard) as genuine, romantic love. Crowley has stated that reading their relationship as such is reductive, but who cares! The movie is flopping, I’ll do what I want. Boris whisks Theo away from his own engagement party so they can stage an art heist in Amsterdam, which is the sad prestige drama equivalent of someone in a rom-com stopping a wedding to declare their love. It’s chaotic and stupid but I respect it. What the film needed was more Boris and his distracting fake teeth.
Art is subjective, and I would never dare to discount the extremely valid criticisms from my peers, but I worry that bad word-of-mouth has likely put off a lot of people when it’s definitely worth buying a ticket for. Many of the film’s problems can be directly linked to readers’ qualms with the novel: it’s too long, the story peaks in the Las Vegas section, and the ending is rushed. I get that. But the film comes from a sincere place of exploring the deepest caverns of trauma and the unavoidable ugliness of being alive. The execution is far from perfect, but I think there’s something to admire in the film’s grandeur and ambition. Sure, The Goldfinch is a sloppy beast, but it’s not entirely bad.
Originally Appeared on GQ