The Goldfinch was a seminal publishing event, an award-winning work from its normally reclusive author, Donna Tartt, who brings out a book once a decade usually. The book is huge, an old-fashioned brick of a story, coming in at close to 900 pages, but to its credit doesn’t let the reader lose focus at any point of its length. It’s engrossing, narrative driven and peopled with characters we come to care about.
So, a movie adaptation was never going to be an easy pitch. For one, the sheer size and scope of the book, as well as the numerous characters in it, would be tough to incorporate fairly into a film’s running time. And, secondly, there is a lot of the book which happens in Theo’s headspace which is not easy to translate into screen, other than by the well-worn trope of the reliable voiceover. Perhaps it’s not a surprise then that this movie did not find much critical or commercial favor when it came out. But I was pleasantly surprised on watching this that as a reader of the book, it did enough justice to the source material for me to recommend it.
The story, as in the book, centres on Theo Decker and how his life pivots on one fateful day. A bombing at the museum he and his mother were visiting at the time and her subsequent death, as well as his impulsive taking of a priceless painting from its frame, The Goldfinch, created in 1654 by the Dutch artist Carel Fabritius. Both of these things shape his life in the years to come as well as his choices. Theo finds temporary refuge at the home of his old friend, Andy Barbour. They warm to him, especially Andy’s mother, Mrs. Barbour. He also finds a surrogate home in the shop and home of Hobie, someone he reaches by the providence of a tenuous connection from the bombing. But just when things seem to be settling down nicely, his estranged father shows up with his girlfriend and they whisk Theo away to Las Vegas. The arid, bleak landscape of half-finished and isolated gleaming housing projects of the Vegas outskirts where Theo lands up reflects his life there, one punctuated by drug-fuelled odysseys with his Russian friend, Boris, as well as the sneaking suspicion that his dad may still be up to no good.
When tragedy strikes once again, Theo slips off into the night and back to New York into the cluttered warmth of Hobie’s lair, who welcomes him back as a surrogate father may and gives Theo the semblance of familial stability he needs. Theo grows up into a de-facto partner of Hobie’s antiques business and what appears to be a settled life, but memories and a certain painting will always have sway over him, as do some characters from his past who resurface.
I can understand why the film may not appeal much to those who haven’t taken the time to peruse the huge source from which it is adapted. The back and forth between the timelines without much background into any of them can jar the senses a bit and not help with creating empathy for the characters. The contents of the book, which progressed at a meanderingly effective pace throughout, is condensed to a screenplay which has to fit the considerations of the format. Yet, the film is almost two and a half hours long so not much more could probably have been done there.
But there is a lot of good here too. For one, I like the idea of keeping the mother as almost an ephemeral presence, fully shown to us only towards the end. This helps to create the mood of almost mythical importance she was in Theo’s life while also hinting at what could have been. The casting of the adult Theo (Ansel Elgort), Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) and Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), all important pivots of the story, is perfect, the characters coming alive from the pages as is for someone who has read the book. Perhaps both the younger and adult versions of Boris, Theo’s Russian friend, could have been better portrayed, but Luke Wilson also did a pretty neat job as Theo’s dad. Oakes Fegley as the younger Theo though, probably had the most difficult part and he comes out of it with flying colours, a veritable hothouse of talent and verve. Also, the locations, whether it is the careworn comforts of Hobie’s den, or the impersonal, lonesome gleam of the Las Vegas homes, have been remarkably well realised and add to the feel of the story.
Overall, while it may appeal more to those who have read the book prior to watching it, it is still a worthy watch for everyone.