Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, is a modern spin on the Dickensian picaresque, with a highly episodic plot taking place over many years and nearly 800 pages. It’s new filmic adaptation, then, must severely condense and trim things down. In doing so, director John Crowley and writer Peter Straughan are left to mainly follow major plot beats without capturing any thematic heft from the text.
The story follows Theo Decker (played as a child by Oakes Fegley and as an adult by Ansel Elgort), whose life spins out of control after his mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the chaos of the attack, Theo dazedly rescues Dutch artist Carel Fabritius’s 1654 trompe-l’œil The Goldfinch. He then keeps the painting for himself as he’s shuffled between various living situations over the years. As an adult, Theo’s drug addiction and debts drive him to forge antiquities, which in turn leads him deeper into crime. All the while, he clings to the newspaper-wrapped masterpiece as his one constant, an anchor to the most defining moment of his life.
Despite taking place within the art world and invoking ideas around the philosophical distinctions between “real” and “fake,” The Goldfinch fails to locate any thematic resonance therein. The only significance it manages to draw from the incorporation of the titular painting is the fact that Fabritius also died in an explosion. Meant to demonstrate how art can preserve beauty by surviving misfortune, it instead functions as a shallow invocation of the real painting’s tragic history.
With the book’s first-person narration mostly discarded, Theo lacks almost any interiority. Similarly, by establishing his myriad relationships through only one or two brief scenes, the film never manages to make the viewer feel invested in any of them. The result is that The Goldfinch feels rushed yet lacking in energy, more a transplantation of the book’s plot than an invested adaptation.
The Goldfinch opens in theaters nationwide September 13.