‘The Goldfinch’: are some novels best left untouched?
First published in 2013, Donna Tartt’s epic coming-of-age novel has attracted a large literary following. The Goldfinch was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2014 and was selected as one of the 10 Best Books of 2013 by the editors of the New York Times Book Review. Almost seven years later, Tartt’s literary classic has been adapted into the big screen by Brooklyn film director John Crowley. Unlike the book, Crowley’s film adaptation has received a number of tepid if not scathing reviews, with Collider’s critic Matt Goldberg calling it nothing short of a “gigantic waste of time”.
A question many have been asking then is, what went wrong in the adaptation of this modern literary classic? Tartt’s Dickensian plot intricately fleshed out characters, and visually descriptive scenes appear perfect for adaptation on paper. The Goldfinch painting itself, a 17th-century canvas by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, becomes a symbolic emblem of protagonist Theo’s lost innocence, and an emotional mainstay that allows him to connect to his past life. With overarching themes of trauma, identity, lost innocence, fate and the value of art, the bar was set high for the film adaptation.
Capturing this depth and detail within 150 minutes of screen time would have been a daunting prospect for any film director. In order to condense Tartt’s 758-page book, the film’s screenwriter Peter Straughan changed its mostly linear narrative into a series of episodes, losing pages of valuable character and plot development in the process.
However, this appears to be a common problem in many film adaptations. Films like Gone Girl, The Time-traveller’s Wife, We need to talk about Kevin, and even the Harry Potter franchise have all been the subjects of criticism with regards to their inability to do justice to their literary counterparts. The magic subjectivity of literature is often difficult to translate into a film that caters to the experiences of the masses. The relationship we have with the book we are reading is always intimate and personal, whilst our experience of a film is heavily curated by its creators.
Although Tartt’s widely-loved novel has attracted the affections of millions, its success on the big screen could not be guaranteed because of this. As a novel, The Goldfinch allows for intricate character and plot development, mapping the evolution of protagonists Theo and Boris as they negotiate a world of drugs, corruption, and romance. In the film, however, Theo (Ansel Elgort) and Boris (Aneurin Barnard) appear two-dimensional, lacking the substance and depth of their literary versions.
On the outside, Theo Decker is fairly bland. His character is impassive and uncharismatic to the outside world, whilst his private thoughts burst with poignancy and feeling. This dimension, lost in the film, renders his character hollow and unlikable. This shift between Theo’s interior and exterior states proved to be difficult to adapt into film, and we are left with an unconvincing depiction of his depressive episodes and drug addiction.
However, the question of adaptation is never an easy one to answer. Stick too closely to the original, and the product often appears laborious, forced and affected. But if you stray too far from the original, there is the risk of losing the essence of the original work altogether. It is clear that the makers of The Goldfinch went to great lengths to capture the magic of Tartt’s story, and the film does at times grasp at the detailed elements of the novel. Despite this attention to detail, the film lacks the profound mystery and magic of the original text.
An answer to this crisis in cinematic adaptations could lie in the developing world of online streaming. Netflix dramas are slowly overtaking the big screen, giving space for shows with episodic plot and character development. If The Goldfinch had been adapted into a series drama as opposed to film, the creators could have kept Tartt’s linear narrative, allowing the plot to unfold without having to cut large chunks of the storyline. Developing character depth and substance requires time, a lot of it. In order for us to feel a connection to the characters in a story, we have to be convinced of their flaws as well as their merits. Tartt’s characters and plot require the time to develop and unfold fully, something a television series might have given space to do. In light of this and so many other film-adaptation defeats of recent years, it is clear that a successful novel does not equal a successful film, and some novels are best left untouched.