After a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, Theodore Decker is left without a mother, without a home. As he flits from one guardian to another, he carries more than the weight of grief with him—something much more of a secret, more dangerous. There is only before and after: the explosion, the painting—The Goldfinch.
When I first saw the initial trailer that played across movie theaters and YouTube and TV, I was immediately interested in the premise of The Goldfinch. I knew I had to get my hands on the book. I loved reading that novel, but then I was nervous to see the film. After reading the novel, I knew something I hadn’t known before: this was going to be a tough story to adapt. They did one thing right, though: they had a star-studded cast.
Oakes Fegley as Young Theo
The entire story revolves around the character development of the main character, Theo. In the beginning of the novel and film, he’s only a child. But the novel spans many years, and we see adult Theo’s life, too. Oakes Fegley as young Theo was so brilliant. He is the best part of the film.
Ansel Elgort as Adult Theo
Casting Ansel Elgort as adult Theo was a perfect choice, because the two look so alike, it’s crazy! These guys were great. They mastered Theo’s quirks and mannerisms from the novel. I was in love.
Although there are other characters who were cast and played perfect (Nicole Kidman as Mrs. Barbour, Jeffrey Wright as Hobie, Sarah Paulson as Xandra, to name a few), I want to mention the other important one that made me squeal: the actors who played Boris, my favorite character in all of literature.
Finn Wolfhard as Young Boris
Finn Wolfhard was almost exactly how I pictured Boris in the book, and though his Russian accent wasn’t the best (in my opinion), I didn’t even care because he was so cute.
Aneurin Barnard as Adult Boris
And though I’d never before heard of Aneurin Barnard, he definitely looked like the grown-up Boris we know and love. His accent was better, too (obviously).
Despite such a lovely cast, The Goldfinch just wasn’t a great adaptation. It wasn’t even a great film apart from the novel. And here’s why: they tried to stay true to a 700+ page novel that is almost entirely inner monologue leading to character development. And that kind of stuff is nearly impossible to get right in a film.
As someone who is obsessed with adaptations maintaining fidelity to the source text, I also understand when cutting things is necessary, which is why I don’t outright hate all adaptations. Unfortunately, I wouldn’t even know where to begin in trimming this novel down for the film. It’s all important for Theo’s growth. Everything that happens is important to Theo’s journey with the painting. So what do you cut? Do you cut out the plotline about Theo selling fake antiques? Maybe—they did make it a small plot point, but it needs to be there for Reeves to make sense. Do you cut Theo’s obsession with Pippa? Definitely not. She’s the entire reason he stays at the painting in the first place. Maybe the engagement with Kitsy? Perhaps. What I’m saying is, there’s not really much to cut, and in not doing so, you’ve got a way-too-long film for a very small audience.
Whereas Tartt tells Theo’s story chronologically, the film is non-linear, beginning at the Barbour’s house after the explosion. Perhaps the most jarring event in the entire novel—the museum scene—appears in flashbacks throughout the film, totally diminishing its full effect. It was haunting, don’t get me wrong, but the novel was sadder, scarier, and gorier. I wasn’t a fan of the out-of-order-ness of the whole thing. I almost thought they skipped the Vegas plotline entirely, because one minute Theo is a kid at his dad’s house, and the next he’s an adult, meeting with Reeves. But then drugs happen, and we get flashbacks into Theo’s childhood in Vegas which is, of course, the absolute best part of both the novel and film.
Theo’s time in Vegas is the most fucked up, sad, confusing, and freeing time in Theo’s life. It’s an emotional rollercoaster. Though I hate Xandra and Theo’s dad, they make for an interesting pair. And Boris—well, he’s amazing, to put it simply. There’s no other character like Boris. The film peaks here, and then unfortunately goes downhill until the end.
Ansel Elgort was brilliant as adult Theo, but they really gave him the short end of the stick. His entire storyline is rushed, hectic, and leaves viewers dissatisfied. After the crazyness of Vegas, the rest of the film blurs by in a rush of scene cuts, varying plotlines (Reeves and Pippa and Hobie and the Barbours and Boris and the painting and the car garage and the hotel), and then BAM—it’s over. In the novel, the Amsterdam scenes are terrifying and slow, the hotel scenes even slower and sadder, and then finally Boris arrives with good news, the end. But the film rushes through it all, leaving little impact and not making a ton of sense.
I was surprised that they changed the ending a bit, though. Really, the only change I noticed in the whole film was that Theo almost overdoses at the end. I mean, yes, in the novel he does a ton of drugs, but he wakes up and has all this awful trouble trying to get back to the states, so much anxiety, and then finally Boris arrives. I was happy they cut all that and, instead, Boris arrives just in time to help Theo wake up from his overdose and deliver the good news. At least they found a way to save some time.
The film ends where it should have began: in the museum, with Theo and his mother and the painting. Everything is before and after the painting. Except in the film, because there is no before or after, as it’s all jumbled together in time.
This film isn’t bad, per se, but it isn’t great. As an adaptation, I’d say that there was just too much to include, not enough to cut for it to make sense. So it all just felt rushed and lopsided. But I did like seeing Theo’s life on screen, despite my complaints. I loved the casting, I liked that the film packed more emotion than the novel, and I love love love the Vegas scenes. I liked the atmosphere. I’m not sure I’d watch it again, but I’m happy I did see it.
It’s not perfect—far from it, actually. And if you haven’t read the novel, you probably won’t fully understand everything. But it was an ambitious feat, and it was artsy as hell, and I can appreciate that. So don’t listen to Rotten Tomatoes. Go out there and support this film, because it’s not that bad. It’s just…not great.