The Goldfinch Is a Masterful Adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize Winner
And the painting’s tragic real-life story
In Donna Tartt’s fictional universe, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art is engulfed in ash after a belligerent accident. Thirteen-year-old Theodore Decker survives and reconciles grief upon losing his mother. On the spur of the moment, he takes a small painting of a bird as a grim keepsake. Through the years, he does his best to conceal it, and it remains tucked away from the world.
The 2015 Pulitzer Prize winner of Fiction—which took 11 years to finish—was adapted as a 2019 film directed by John Crowley (Brooklyn). Its star-studded cast includes Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright, Luke Wilson, Aneurin Barnard and newcomer Oakes Fegley. It was five years ago when I lost myself in The Goldfinch—all 771 pages of it. As a fan of the novel, I can say that the actors sure did right by it.
Reader, I plead with you: This film requires much patience. You may get restless but, as with any work of art, once the full picture is revealed, it will make sense—its beauty displayed in its full glory; just you wait. As somber and, truthfully, dragging as it is for the earlier part with a seemingly endless trail of unfortunate events that follow young Theo (Oakes Fegley), it gets better.
The Goldfinch is full of flashbacks from Theo’s traumatic childhood and his present-day life as a salesman of antiques—after his interest in art and old things grow. Theo befriends Boris played by Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things); their friendship is born from their common misfortunes: dead mothers and abusive fathers. (He is a great addition to the film, providing light entertainment after all the distress.) Consistently reminded by the painting, Theo is followed by guilt his whole life. Will it ever see the light of day?
Film vs. Book
Truth be told, with 771 pages of inexhaustible material, the book is challenging to adapt into a film—so how did it fare? (After all, it spent over 30 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.) Highlighting Theo’s childhood—almost to a fault—for the most part was faithful to the book. It was long and, at times, tedious; quite perfectly placed in the suburban desert sprawl in Las Vegas where nothing ever seems to happen. The brutal ending, which was pivotal to the story’s resolution, was overtly rushed. But the unexpected plot twist during his years as a young professional is worth the stretch.
Behind the Painting
The 17th-century Dutch oil painting by Carole Fabritius (1654) is stranger than fiction with a haunting, tragic real-life story. The tiny, yellow-feathered bird stands perched on a stand with a gold chain to keep it from flying away.
Similar to the novel, the melancholy painting is the “aftermath” of the explosion of 1654 known as the Delft Thunderclap. Among the victims is the gifted—but forgotten—painter at the age of 32.
“Caring too much for objects can destroy you. Only—if you care for a thing enough, it takes on a life of its own, producesn’t it? And isn’t the whole point of things—beautiful things—that they connect you to some larger beauty?”
The Goldfinch—both the painting and the film—is a powerful illustration of the “immortality” of art and how this piece of work, which survived its creator’s tragedy, will benefit generations to come.
The Goldfinch is now showing in cinemas nationwide.
Art Alexandra Lara