If you've read Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, I am happy to report there’s zero need for you to sit through the remarkably tedious two-and-a-half-hour movie adaptation. If you haven’t read The Goldfinch, I am happy to report there’s zero need for you to sit through the remarkably tedious two-and-a-half-hour movie adaptation.
This brain-numbingly bland cinematic version of Tartt’s nearly 800-page Pulitzer Prize–winning novel functions as a thesis statement on the wrongheadedness of turning novels into films without dismantling the story from its very foundation and rebuilding from scratch. (See also: Where’d You Go, Bernadette.) What worked relatively well in Tartt’s prose—the interiority, the wistfulness, and the numbed but palpable grief of the main character, Theo—is turned limp and lugubrious by director John Crowley’s literal staging of the book’s somewhat preposterous plotting.
It’s paid no favors by director of photography Roger Deakins, whose established record of genius, it pains me to say, takes a major ding here; he delivers adequate amounts of texture and color, but not a single image that will linger in your brain. Screenwriter Peter Straughan deserves a big chunk of the blame, too—the airless, mannered way these characters talk to each other is nothing less than utter bullshit.
Theo is played by two actors: Oakes Fegley as a 13-year-old, and Ansel Elgort as an adult. Fegley’s fine, but Elgort is as disastrously vacant and uninteresting as ever. He’s like a six-foot-tall party sub that contains only mayonnaise. Theo’s Ukranian pal Boris—the book’s most entertaining element—is also played by two actors, Finn Wolfhard and Aneurin Banard, although I think the teenage Wolfhard may actually be taller than the adult Barnard. This is the type of movie that asks us to believe grown-up characters will have the same exact hairstyles they had when they were children, in order to make them easy for us to identify.
The plot of The Goldfinch is barely worth bringing up. One of the pleasures of the novel is how Tartt managed to keep its far-fetched, decades-spanning story of a dead mom and a stolen painting so delicately afloat. Here, it becomes unpleasantly soggy. I can’t imagine anyone who hasn’t read the book coming away with a clear idea of what any of this nonsense is about. Why is Theo a high-functioning drug addict? Who is this Pippa character, exactly? How did Theo become a successful antiques dealer seemingly overnight? And what the fuck happened in Amsterdam? (To be fair, the book fumbles that last one, too.)
The movie doesn’t address any of these questions in a meaningful way, because it’s too afraid to muss up the novel’s upholstery. I haven’t even mentioned that Nicole Kidman, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, and Sarah Paulson all have important roles; trust me when I say they’re all decent enough, but can’t lift this thing out of the doldrums. The movie adheres to the book to its detriment, resulting in this futile, deathly dull exercise in translation-as-filmmaking. The Goldfinch isn’t so much a movie as it is a very expensive book report.