Two book-to-film adaptations were on my watch list while I was at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) this September: Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Goldfinch and the Dickens classic The Personal History of David Copperfield, both had their world premiere at TIFF. The two make such interesting contrasts that it would be good to discuss them together in one post, but that would be a long one. As I covet your attention, I’ll split them into two reviews.
I listened to the audiobook of The Goldfinch in 2014, a year after the novel was published. My impression was: this one’s written for the screen. There are Dickensian characters and storylines transposed into present day. 13-year-old Theo is visiting a NYC art museum with his mother when she is killed in a bombing. In the aftermath, stunned and traumatized, he follows a mysterious track to an antique shop where the owner Hobie takes him in. There he meets Pippa, a girl he finds affiliation as she’s looking at the same painting with him in the museum when the bomb goes off. Later Pippa moves away and Theo goes to live with a wealthy Park Avenue family, the Barbours, only to have his stable life interrupted by the sudden reappearance of his long-gone, alcoholic father claiming full guardianship and taking him to live in Nevada, where he becomes friends with Boris, another boy lost in the sandy void.
Later, fleeing from his abusive father, Theo returns to the antique shop in NYC. Under the mentorship of Hobie he learns the skills of the trade. Years later, by chance and fate, Boris shows up again in his life, pulling him into the underworld of art dealings that eventually leads to a violent end, but that’s where the closure begins. “The Goldfinch” is the painting Theo takes with him after the museum bombing and hides it for himself, for it is a physical reminder of his last memory with his mother. They were looking at it when disaster struck; it was his mother’s favorite painting.
That’s the main book story in a nutshell, and it appears that screenwriter Peter Straughan is keen to remain as faithful to the source material as possible. When the task at hand is loyalty to the original 784 page novel, the 149 minute screen time can feel like a laborious effort to create a replica, thus losing its flavour as an art form of a different medium, breathing, living cinema. The characters and major plot points are there, but what’s missing are the emotional depth and sparks of life.
Tartt’s novel has its Dickensian characters, and I can’t help but see parallels between The Goldfinch and The Personal History of David Copperfield. Theo and Davy, Boris and Steerforth, Theo’s father Larry and Davy’s stepfather Mr. Murdstone, Pippa and Agnes. The two features, however, represent two ends of possible choices for film adaptations.
Director John Crowley, who helmed Brooklyn (2015), a beautiful adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s novel, has a good cast to work with for The Goldfinch. Oakes Fegley (Wonderstruck, 2017) gives us a mature performance as young Theo. Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour decades apart, two roles that don’t give her much to say. Luke Wilson as Theo’s volatile father Larry and Sarah Paulson as his girlfriend Xandra are the livelier contrasts to other characters. Maybe Crowley focuses too much on the theme of grief that the overtone is sombre throughout. Ansel Elgort as adult Theo may not be a miscast but is boxed in by the only emotion he can express, gloominess. I can’t remember he has flashed a hearty smile once. That goes for other characters as well. The Goldfinch is a story of grief and Crowley has painted the mood in stark realism.
Thanks to the venerable cinematographer Roger Deakins (2018 Oscar winner Blade Runner 2049), we get to see some sunlight and energy in the Nevada desert days of friendship between young Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, TV Stranger Things). For most of the film, however, the color is a greyish cyan of dolefulness. While the museum bombing scene is dramatic, watching it over and over again––as Theo is drawn into guilt-ridden memory––could diminish the effect. But then, this would be an editing issue. And like Theo, don’t we all want to see the face of his mother, whose death is the cause of the grief, but that only comes for a short moment towards the end.
In an early scene, antique shop owner Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) shows young Theo how to tell a piece of furniture by touch to feel its authenticity. Too smooth has to be fake. Furniture that has weathered years of usage would be rougher and uneven. The character of adult Theo could have been a wiser man, more seasoned and worldly, but he remains static and stiff. The poignancy of fate with its power over one’s life comes late in the film and exerts little effect on the emotional connection with viewers. Unfortunately, Hobie’s antique lesson for young Theo is a metaphor for the adaptation. Other than a visual representation of the major plot of the novel, the film is a reproduction that lacks authenticity and liveliness.
~ ~ 1/2 Ripples