September 21, 2019
The film distills the odyssey of the novel into a movie. Its cast and director discuss making the ‘daunting’ adaptation
The Goldfinch: would it have worked better as a TV show?
As it arrives on the big screen, The Goldfinch becomes a test case for what we might call “prestige literary cinema”. It is the kind of serious, contemporary, non-genre literary adaptation that merits top talent, a large budget and, ideally, awards consideration. This used to be a studio staple but recently it has become a territory strewn with failures: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, for example, or On Chesil Beach, The Lovely Bones, The Time Traveller’s Wife, The Girl on the Train. Whether it’s the fault of modern literature or modern cinema, this kind of movie is now an endangered species, threatened by blockbusters on one side, and long-form TV and web dramas on the other.
With its Dickensian plot, vivid characters and exhaustively descriptive scene-setting, Donna Tartt’s book was crying out for a movie adaptation. The novel – a Pulitzer winner, published in 2013 – deals with big themes: grief, trauma, guilt, class and, above all, the value of art. It is a story about how art carries memories – historical, cultural and personal – from generation to generation, and how beautiful things need to be treasured. Or, as Tartt says in the book, “pulled from the fire”. As such, it is a story about itself; the original Goldfinch is a painting – a small 17th-century canvas by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, delicately depicting a bird chained to a perch, which protagonist Theo (Ansel Elgort) almost literally pulls from the fire. He first sees it at an exhibition in New York with his mother. Moments later, a bomb rips through the gallery, killing her and prompting him to make off with the artwork. As he makes his way in life, from the upper echelons to the criminal underworld, the painting becomes a secret totem of grief and guilt.
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