by CELIA BROCKER
Warner Bros. adaptation of Donna Tart’s best-selling and Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Goldfinch was released on September 13, and has subsequently been bombing at the box office as well as receiving sour reviews from critics. The film has scored 26% on Rotten Tomatoes, but scored 73% among audiences.
Why the mixed reviews? What isn’t sitting well with critics? Why is the audience reception more positive than established film critics?
One reason could be that the majority of critics have read Tart’s novel and were disappointed with how the film adapted the story, while the average audience member likely hasn’t. The Goldfinch novel is almost 800 pages long – length often associated with the Harry Potter novels – all of which is impossible to fit into a 2 and a half hour film.
The story Tart weaves in her novel is a long and complicated history of the life of Theodore Decker, whose mother is killed in an explosion while they’re visiting an art museum. In his shock, accompanied with confusing demands from a mortally injured gentlemen, Theo takes his mother’s favorite painting – The Goldfinch – out of the rubble. While Theo moves from home to home, makes friends and enemies, and falls into a troubled life he keeps the painting safely locked away for years.
There is a lot of material covered in the novel – life-consuming grief, living with trauma, drug addiction, and repressed feelings. Naturally this was going to be difficult to adapt into a film, and though The Goldfinch keeps the most important parts of the novel, they lack the impact of which they are felt in the novel. While Tart was allowed pages to build to these dramatic moments, the film only has minutes.
The other problem the film faces is the structure of the story. The novel is told in a linear style, starting with the horrific event that shaped the rest of Theo’s life and telling the sequence of events that follows in order. The film, however, jumps between the past and present several times, making several parts of the story feel out of place.
Switching between different time periods is a tricky tactic to use in film, and is often used to demonstrate how far the protagonist has come. This doesn’t work in The Goldfinch because one of the most important pieces of the story is that Theo hasn’t changed at all since the incident at the museum. He is unable to move on from that day or the guilt he feels about his mother’s death and his theft, and has consequently not developed as a person.
The film is not without its upsides – the classical soundtrack melds well with the antique style of cinematography, it has some stunning shots and the color palate matches the colors of the titular painting. But the film faces a challenge with pleasing fans of the novel since so much material is left out of the story. The Goldfinch is the kind of film where individuals would enjoy watching the film before reading the novel, so they don’t feel robbed from the material that didn’t make it to the big screen.