The arithmetic certainly called for one: Tartt’s third novel is 738 pages, and spans over a decade in Theo Decker’s life (played here by a bespectacled, pensive Ansel Elgort), after a tragic and unexplained explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art decides his future. He becomes a boy forever in search of the unconditional love he lost when his mother died in the bombing.
Typically, in the translation from one language (verbal) to another (visual), elements are lost. At 738 pages, The Goldfinch stood to lose a lot, even if the movie runs a bloated two-and-a-half hours.
The Goldfinch, directed by John Crowley, doesn’t leave plot points on the cutting floor. Or at least, not too many — readers of the book might miss some of its stranger points, like teenage Boris’ (Finn Wolfhard) troubled 25-year-old girlfriend. Other events are rearranged to suit the movie’s format; for example, the trip through the museum that opens the book ultimately ends the movie. In that sense, The Goldfinch feels like a complete adaptation of Tartt’s novel. The most fundamental beats of Theo’s odyssey are preserved, from bumping around various American households to a botched art heist in Amsterdam.
As Theo puts it, his life is split into the “before” and the “after” of that day. Only briefly does The Goldfinch pause in the “during” of the attack, which killed Theo’s mother and prompted him to walk out of the museum with Carel Fabritius’ Goldfinch — his mother’s favorite painting — stuffed into his school backpack. After surviving two explosions, the Goldfinch is confined to darkness because a middle-schooler secretly hopes it can be a vessel for a mother’s love (among many other meanings this symbol has in the film).
Mostly, though, The Goldfinch remains in the “after.” When his mother dies, Theo loses his only family — his father (Luke Wilson) disappeared months prior, and reappears just as Theo’s about to be adopted by his friend’s family. The explosion hands Theo a new set of recurring characters. In Tartt’s universe, fate is forever filling in Theo’s social calendar (I lost track of Theo’s chance run-ins with old friends in Manhattan establishments).
The most important people in Theo’s life are all connected to the explosion. He gets engaged to Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald), the daughter of the family that took him into their lavish UES apartment after the tragedy. He forever pines after Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings), the red-headed flute player who “saved his life” (as he puts it in the book) by being enough of a beautiful beacon to dissuade him from following his mother into the doomed gallery. He’s sent on a mission to return a ring to Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), who later becomes his mentor and surrogate father. As they say online, #nonewfriends.
Naturally, the themes of Theo’s life are also laid out in that scene: an obsession that becomes an addiction (Theo can’t quit Pippa, and later can’t quit drugs); beautiful objects (Theo stares at paintings and restores furniture); transgression (Theo steals The Goldfinch and slides into a life of forgery).
The film adaptation of The Goldfinch isn’t missing the story. What it is missing is Donna Tartt, and the richly textured narration that made the book such an immersive read.
Tartt’s characters and settings are tremendously specific. The movie excels in recreating the settings from the books; no surprise, considering Theo’s fixation on objects. His life is a parade of bedrooms, each reflecting the era’s mood with a color palette. Freshly mourning his mother, Theo is immersed both spiritually and aesthetically in blue at the Barbours’ austere and lavish New York palace. His McMansion in Las Vegas is tan and devoid of old, beautiful objects — and love. Hobie’s house is golden, and warm (the same palette as the Goldfinch painting).
Where the movie fails is in carrying over the characters. As teenage and adult Theo, Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort keep their emotions muted. Without the book’s obsessive first-person narration, it’s hard to see the ocean beneath their impenetrable expressions.
But the movie especially loses Theo’s mother, Audrey. In the movie, she’s merely a white coat fading into the museum, towards her doom. Her personality is gleaned only through her belongings. She lived in an apartment of cozy clutter, where objects were both intellectual but chic, shabby but classy, and scattered among framed photos of her son. Her earrings are passed on to other women in Theo’s life, none of whom are worthy. At the end, her face is unveiled as if that, in itself, were some kind of resolution. Oh, look: She’s beautiful! No wonder Theo loved her!
Theo loses his mother — but really, he loses Mother with a capital M. He loses all that a mother figure traditionally represents in narratives: unconditional love, nurturing, childhood. He is thrust into the world effectively an orphan, a foreigner in every home.
Obviously, Theo loses his mother in Tartt’s book, too. But the book’s opening pages lay out exactly what that loss means. There are long sections in which Theo remembers her specifically: Her history, how she looked, how she moved through the world on her last day. “She was wholly herself: A rarity,” Theo says in the opening pages. Yes, she becomes a symbol — but she was a person first.
Ironically, the Tale of the Two Goldfinches aligns with the movie’s overarching discussion on art and objects. In the basement of his shop, Hobie lines up two chairs that seem nearly identical. One is an antique that’s hundreds of years old. The other, a recreation. But only one has “a glow” and “the marks of life,” Hobie says.
Like the two chairs, the book and movie are works of art designed in the same mold, and will outlive their creators and users. But some chairs have more of a glow about them. Some works of art do, too.
Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that Theo's father, Larry Decker, is played by Owen Wilson. Larry Decker is actually played by Luke Wilson.