Literary Adaptations at TIFF19: The Goldfinch

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.

The Goldfinch.jpg
Nicole Kidman and Ansel Elgort in The Goldfinch. Image Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

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



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If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

13 thoughts on “Literary Adaptations at TIFF19: The Goldfinch”

  1. I didn’t read the book but I was willing to see the movie. Now I think I will skip it. Thanks for the review! I hope David Copperfield was better! Crossing my fingers for that one 🙂


    1. Stefanie,

      David Copperfield offers a very different style of adapting a classic novel dating back over 150 years. But may not be in your theatres any time soon. Stay tune for my review some time in the future.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I didn’t read the book, although I kept running into people singing its praises. Oddly, now that I’ve read your review, I have just a bit of an urge to read the book. Still, 700-odd pages is hefty, and if I bog down 50 pages in… If I have some time this winter, I might get it from the library.

    I did love this line in your review: “Too smooth has to be fake.” That’s true for people as well as wood. The phrase “smooth operator” comes to mind!


    1. Linda,

      If you’re willing to spend time on a 700 page novel, I highly recommend Dickens’ David Copperfield. I’ll be posting a review of its newest adaptation which also world premiered at TIFF19, and it’s a much more interesting topic for discussion.
      And thanks for liking that line… just popped into my mind and didn’t realize it could have application for people as well as wood. 🙂


  3. I have not seen this film, but I wonder how it could equal or exceed the power of the book. I read an interesting article somewhere about how Tartt’s readers have been waiting for a film of The Secret History more than The Goldfinch. I wonder how either can be made effectively into a film, as her writing is so excellent. Fully half of what I love about it is the mood she creates, and if that isn’t captured correctly in film, what’s the point? But, as you remember, I am NOT a film critic. I leave that to your worthy hands. Xo


    1. Bellezza,

      The impression I’d when I listened to the audiobook was ‘liveliness’ despite the tragedy Theo had to go through as a boy, and quite dramatic in the latter part of the book. The movie felt ‘lethargic’. Transposing literary materials to screen is a daunting task but I’ve seen better ones.


  4. Oh that’s a shame. I did enjoy the R4 reading, which was spread over an unusual 3 rather than 2 weeks. I liked the accent of the reader, and it helped me cope with the length when I read that actual book.


    1. Denise,

      You know I’m a supporter of literary adaptations, esp. as you’re a long-time visitor to Ripple Effects. Definitely I don’t take pleasure in seeing one bomb, esp. one with a $45 million budget, and I trust, with all good intentions. But maybe this could serve as an ‘object lesson’ (for lack of a proper description for it) for future attempts of turning books to the big screen. On another note, this could make one interesting mini-series, maybe a four-part limited series, and some overhaul. I’ll be reviewing another adaptation: David Copperfield with Dev Patel starring, maybe closer to its general release date. That will be an interesting post to write.


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