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Courtesy of Amazon Studios

September 18, 2019

‘The Goldfinch’ Adaptation Fails to Impress

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Time and time again, Hollywood has shown us that adapting a movie from another medium is a slippery slope. From the never-ending remakes of classic novels like Greta Gerwig’s upcoming Little Women to the money-milking young adult franchises like the Harry Potter series, filmmakers have attempted to bridge the world of literature and film for nearly as long as cinema has been alive. But we’ve learned from the disappointing outcome of Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time, based on a timeless classic, that not all breathtaking novels can be easily turned into equally breathtaking movies. The Goldfinch is no exception.

I’ve noticed that films thrive in being unabashedly cinematic — a good script and movie is ultimately self-aware and self-centered; it knows only itself and understands how to express itself through visual storytelling, even when there is a novel in its underbelly. It requires awareness of what moments in a novel are too literary to turn cinematic and what parts of a plot are critical in maintaining the integrity of the book — a conflicting challenge much easier said than done.

A great example of this is Denis Villeneuve’s Arrival, a movie based on a short story — but therein lies the critical word: based. Very little of the movie can be seen in the story, and vice versa. This is how it should be, especially if the intent is not to milk money out of a famous YA franchise (though perhaps this, too, was the intent of turning a bestselling novel into a film during a time practically devoid of original screenplays). But John Crowley, it seems, has no more based the movie off the novel than cut up its nine-hundred-and-something pages and randomly selected just enough chapters to fit into a two-and-a-half hour feature film. Not only this, but he reorders the telling of the story in a way that does nothing to enhance the cinematic experience. Instead, it becomes a slew of beautiful but ultimately confusing montages and scenes that feel important but don’t make an actual statement.

Perhaps the best way to produce this movie could have been to ask everyone involved never to read the full book and simply work off of a Wikipedia plot summary. Instead, the first scene reveals Ansel Elgort doing a voiceover reading that is basically an audiobook clip, a habit that does not stop until the end of the movie. And while direct quotes are no sin, it doesn’t help that the mise en scène is far too indulgent in the aesthetic to properly place us in the grueling, Dickensian moments of Theo’s floundering journey.

The Goldfinch is about grief, art and memory. Or rather — it could have been. Ansel Elgort plays Theodore Decker, an unhappy man whose self-proclaimed downfall began when, in middle school, he loses his mother in a terrorist bombing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then ensues back-and-forth jumps between his past and present, unraveling a life ridden with trauma, paranoia and never-ending misfortunes. Rarely do we get to glimpse Theo’s dark mind, a privilege given to us only a couple times through shots of him snorting lines or waking up in a cold sweat from a nightmare.

Where once was an opportunity to create a moving portrayal of the journey of a practically orphaned child becomes a strange montage with inexplicable reprioritization of plot points. His time at the Barbours’, a friend’s wealthy family who agrees to take him in temporarily, feels strangely aloof and is only brought to life by Mr. Barbour’s (Boyd Gaines) off-beat Dad jokes. Nicole Kidman’s portrayal of Mrs. Barbour borders between creepy and emotionless. On the other hand, his relationship with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), an antiques shop owner, is vastly underplayed compared to Mrs. Barbour’s overbearing presence. Perhaps the most tolerable part of the movie is Theo’s homoromantic friendship with Boris, played by Finn Wolfhard with a questionable slavic accent. Overall, however, there is not enough cohesion to give characters enough time to become a relatable, three-dimensional person (other than Boris).

What breaks my heart is the immense potential of this movie — all of which fell flat from the mediocre writing. From the heavy-handed aesthetics to the poorly written dialogue, too many parts of the film do the story a disservice. Moments full of potential for poignancy and depth only disappoint with overly generic lines that shove symbolism down our throats. Even opportunities to discuss issues like Theo’s depression and addiction are only briefly shown but not explained.

Perhaps I am plagued with the same curse of perspective that the producers of the movie had: Already acquainted with the novel, I cannot help but compare every scene and character with the original. Part of me wonders how I might think of the movie had I not been familiar with the story beforehand.  At the same time, I know that I would much rather keep my memory of reading the book than the one of watching the film. If there’s one thing to take away from The Goldfinch, it is that we vastly underestimate writers that properly translate great novels into quality — or even passable — screenplays.

Celine Choo is a senior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at cc972@cornell.edu.