How John Crowley Misunderstands The Goldfinch

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In 2019, Warner Brothers released John Crowley’s sophomore film The Goldfinch, adapted from a Pulitzer-winning novel with the same name written by Donna Tartt.

The worry kicked in when I heard the news The Goldfinch was being turned into a feature film. I loved John Crowley’s Brooklyn (2015) but adapting a 700+ page book is no easy task. The Goldfinch deals in grief, opening with a thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker losing his mother to a terrorist attack inside the MET. All that remains of his mother is Carel Fabritius’ “The Goldfinch,” a painting that he stole on his way out of the museum. He grows to self medicate and begins dealing antique forgeries to wealthy New Yorkers. Perhaps it could be a great piece of art, especially if it fixed the tonally troublesome third act.

My fears were assuaged slightly when this trailer dropped.

(The Goldfinch Trailer — Warner Brothers)

Set to Perfume Genius’ “Otherside,” the punchy editing had me willing to forgive the misplaced casting of Ansel Elgort (who should never be cast) and Finn Wolfhard (who obviously needed a dialect coach). But Jeffrey Wright as Hobie felt like a revelation. Sarah Paulson playing Xandra had me absolutely giddy. This was shaping up to be an Oscar contender. Then the reviews came in.

So what went wrong? Crowley and Peter Straughan—the screenwriter—obviously saw the text as a bible. There were obvious places for improvement that were overlooked. But what kept bothering me was how cold the film felt. In The Goldfinch, Tartt painstakingly chronicles Theo’s journey from a teenager doing acid in the desert to a young adult crushing benzos in a hotel room.

Crowley splices the arc of Teenage Theo and Adult Theo together. This is done for two reasons: to deal with the bloat that the book suffered from and that it keeps the mother’s face a secret until the very end. The split narrative creates unnecessary tension, especially to those who clearly saw the mother in the trailer above. Every interaction means something. Little details such as Theo keeping his tortoiseshell frames into adulthood because Mrs. Barbour—the first adult to treat him with kindness after the incident—picked them out for him as a child don’t translate well to the screen. This leads to a colder cast of characters than we began with because even Theo is missing the sentiment that kept him tied, by a thread, to reality.

I can’t talk about The Goldfinch without talking about Boris and Theo’s relationship. For me, and most of tumblr it seems, this is the thread that binds the book together. Crowley mentioned that he didn’t see the relationship between Boris and Theo as anything more than good friends. Who cares that he left out the part of the book where Theo and Boris have sex while inebriated.

But he’s kind of right when it comes to the text. Outside of their teenage tryst, Boris is a womanizing fiend; Theo’s obsession with the past deludes him into thinking he loves Pippa. If you were to take it at face value, Boris and Theo are just two good friends. Except literature is always more fun when you dig deeper.

When I first saw the trailer, the fact that the scene where Boris and Theo say goodbye to one another in Las Vegas seemed unedited impressed me. We can clearly see Wolfhard—in his turn as Slavic androgynous Bette Davis—tenderly kiss his cohort goodbye. In the book it’s a scene that was long earned, and what follows is what really sealed the deal for me.

More than anything I was relieved that in my unfamiliar babbling-and-wanting-to-talk state I’d stopped myself from blurting the thing on the edge of my tongue, the thing I’d never said, even though it was something we both knew well enough without me saying it out loud to him in the street — which was, of course, “I love you.”

The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Boris and Theo form a bond based on a shared reality: a dead mother and an abusive father. They are one another’s only refuge from their depressing realities. Their relationship is important to Theo—enough that he took conversational Russian in college—because Boris is the first person in Las Vegas to treat him as a human. Out in the desert he believed he was alone but then had Boris. Boris responds to Theo’s outbursts not with anger but with tenderness and humor that is lacking from every adult in the novel. During a night terror, Boris claps Theo to his chest and whispers reassurances into his hair. It’s why Theo wants Boris to run away with him to New York as a teen. This is shown on screen but feels dull.

What does John Crowley get out of the book if not that? Crowley is such a fan of the original that he and Straughan adapted The Goldfinch as accurately as they could when it came to details. In fact, this was a common criticism many reviewers had about the movie. The dedication to the original text ballooned the run time to 149 minutes. It is unclear coming out of this film.

Reviewers were right to say that it should have strayed from the book more to create a better movie. At the same time, Crowley might have needed a refresher on the book to better nail the relationship at the heart of the book.

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Ciarán is a wordsmith and novice skateboarder. @ciaranshutup on twitter

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