Brandon Shillingford, Contributing Writer
Adapting books to screen is never easy. Whether they’re slender children’s books like “The Lorax” or “The Grinch,” or adult contemporary behemoths like “Atlas Shrugged” or “Gone Girl,” the challenge of translating beloved pieces of literature never gets easier.
When it comes to books like Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “The Goldfinch” — a novel that’s as narratively dense as it is thematically rich — the task of adaptation takes on a whole new challenge.
The novel tells the story of Theo Decker, a young boy whose mother is killed after a bombing at a New York City art gallery. In the heat of the moment, Theo steals an incredibly valuable painting called “The Goldfinch.” A painting that, unbeknownst to him at the time, would change the course of his life.
The next 800-some-odd pages follow Theo throughout the next 14 years of his life, and by that extent, the paintings, in a splintering narrative that examines the relationship between immortality and art.
It uses Theo’s life — which could be considered insignificant if it weren’t for his connection to the painting — and explores how one’s life and legacy can be changed by art.
As narratively complex and fascinating as the book is, it suffers from a need to over explain and overindulge. The film suffers from the same issues, but fails to use the characters and story in a similarly rewarding way.
The book is written largely in first person, giving insight into Theo’s thoughts and mind. Without that same kind of narration and guidance, many of adult Theo’s decisions come off as shallow and nonsensical.
Given the right material and director, I think Elgort can be one of the most talented leading men in Hollywood. However, this was not the right project for him. In films such as “Baby Driver,” director Edgar Wright makes you look past his lack of range and uses his natural charm and charisma of a ’50s era movie star to make up for it. Theo just isn’t the right character for him — and it feels like Elgort knows it. He just comes off as boring and uninterested.
But young Theo, on the other hand — played by Oakes Fegley — is a different story entirely. Fegley takes the same unabashed sincerity and earnestness he displayed in “Pete’s Dragon” and dials it up several notches in a performance that keeps this film on track during the first half.
But where “The Goldfinch” falls short is its ambition. It tries to focus on how the painting affects Theo’s psychology and growth, and it fails. Then it tries to be a thriller; it fails in that too. Just when it finds its footing in melodrama, it’s too late, and the film has already succumbed to poor pacing and uneven writing. And with a two-and-a-half-hour runtime, there’s no excuse for that.
The book is also written in a largely linear fashion. In the film, however, director John Crowley (who helmed 2015’s spectacular “Brooklyn”) and writer Peter Straughan, whose screenplay for “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy” was nominated for an Oscar, make the odd choice to tell the story non-linearly. This makes the film less coherent, turning it into a bunch of scenes from different movies with the same actors, stitched and sewn together like a shirt made of cotton and steel wool.
On their own, the scenes make sense and are beautifully crafted like their own little pieces of art, with stunning work by legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins and composer Trevor Gureckis holding them together. Deakins’ material stands out especially. I can easily see “The Goldfinch” quietly sneaking in as some of the best work he’s ever done. It’s low-key and restrained, but rich, elegant and powerful all the same.
It’s a polarizing piece of art that — just like the book and the painting that share its namesake — will divide a lot of people. And although there is a lot to like, “The Goldfinch” is a messy misfire that doesn’t do justice to the bold and brazen source material.