On the surface, Donna Tartt’s award-winning novel The Goldfinch is the story of a sensitive and perceptive boy, Theo Decker, whose mother is killed in a bombing at the Metropolitan Museum in New York.
But the Pulitzer-winning book is more than that: it’s a story about the loss of a loved one, a coming-of-age tale, and a meditation on the power of art to bring people together and pull them apart. It’s also over 700 pages long. So, not the most obvious choice for a big screen adaptation.
Irish director John Crowley felt up to the task. After all, he already had a successful adaptation under his belt: 2015’s Brooklyn, based on the novel by Colm Toibin.
Speaking at the Toronto International Film Festival’s red carpet premiere of the film earlier this week, Crowley said his vision for The Goldfinch was very specific. He wanted to go after, “this very private emotion, which is a young boy that gets stuck in grief and who fears that he’s responsible for his mother’s death, mistakenly, and the terrible situation he ties himself up in.”
Crowley assembled a cast full of top-tier actors (Nicole Kidman, Sarah Paulson, Jeffrey Wright) and talented young actors, including Oakes Fegley, who plays young Theo, and Canadian Finn Woolfhard (from Netflix’s Stranger Things), who plays Theo’s eccentric friend Boris. The cinematography — critical in a film where characters spend long periods of time looking longingly at art — was done by Oscar-winner Roger Deakins, known as “the master of light.”
Watch the actors from The Goldfinch talk about how they transformed into their characters
Initial reviews of the film were mixed, with some calling the film bloodless and uninspired. Ann Hornaday from The Washington Post wrote “an air of unexamined privilege wafts through “The Goldfinch” like so much Chanel No. 5.” The one thing almost all critics seemed to agree on is that the film’s chief failing is its too-strict adherence to the source material.
So, will The Goldfinch get to spread its wings as audiences around North America see it in cinemas? That’s hard to say, but a look at previous adaptations of several complex (and often adored) novels shows mixed results.
A Wrinkle in Time (2018)
The movie adaptation of Madeleine L’Engle’s 1962 novel looked like it had all the right ingredients: a cast comprised of beloved female media moguls Oprah Winfrey, Reese Witherspoon and Mindy Kaling. And Ava Duvernay, hot off her critical success with Selma, in the director’s chair. What could go wrong?
As it turns out, plenty.
What critics thought: The film received poor-to-middling reviews, with many critics pointing out that the dazzling visual effects overshadowed the tricky intergalactic travel aspect of the story, as well as the story’s emotional heart about the importance of family and being true to yourself. The Hollywood Reporter’s Todd McCarthy said the movie “doesn’t charm or disarm,” while Vanity Fair’s Richard Lawson wrote “the grace of the film’s ideas is drowned out by a garish flair or hasty plot development.”
What audiences thought: A Wrinkle in Time was one of the biggest box office bombs of 2018. The movie made about $130 million US worldwide, but it was not nearly enough to offset the $250 million Disney Studios spent on making and advertising it.
But there was a silver lining — many of the people who did see the movie liked it a lot. Article after article praised the film for its diverse cast, including the mixed-race family at the centre of the movie. There were also cheers for the way the film provided a positive role model for girls in the awkward but brilliant main character, Meg Murry.
The Golden Compass (2007)
Based on Northern Lights, the first book in Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials, The Golden Compass tells the story of Lyra Belacqua, an orphan living in an alternate universe run by an oppressive religious organization called The Magisterium. Rich in terminology and imagery all its own, the fantasy adventure seemed poised to woo the viewers’ imaginations.
New Line Cinema, the studio that produced the film, had just wrapped up Lord of the Rings: the Fellowship of the Ring, and was eager for another fantastic voyage with fantastic box office returns. But it looked like The Golden Compass faced challenges from the get-go: the film was announced as a project in 2002, but frequent changes to screenplays and directors ensured it wouldn’t see the light of day until 2007.
What critics thought: While many adaptations suffer by being too faithful to the novels that inspired them, with The Golden Compass some critics felt the film strayed too far from the book, to its detriment. Debbie Day of Premiere magazine said the film “ultimately fails as a film in its broad strokes and inadequate scene development.”
What audiences thought: The film earned a very respectable $372 million US at the box office. But given the ambitions of its producers and production expenses, it was still considered a box office failure. It also managed the difficult feat of stirring up the anger of both religious and non-religious filmgoers. Many fans of the book felt the film glossed over or excised its anti-religion themes, out of fear of alienating American audiences. The National Secular Society, of which the books’ author was an honorary member, said the filmmakers “are taking the heart out of it, losing the point of it, castrating it.” But at the same time, the Catholic League called for a boycott of the film.
While the once-rumoured sequel to the film doesn’t appear to be happening, it looks like the film wasn’t the last adaptation we’ll see of Pullman’s novels. Eager to fill a gap left by the conclusion of Game of Thrones, HBO recently announced that it is turning the His Dark Materials books into an original series.
The English Patient (1996)
Moving between post-war Italy and North Africa, told out-of-sequence, and centred upon narratives of four different characters, including a badly burned man presumed to be English, Canadian author Michael Ondaatje’s epic novel was a critical and commercial success upon its 1992 release.
In 1996, director Anthony Minghella took on the ambitious epic, initially struggling to get a studio interested in financing the film’s lavish sets in Italy and Tunisia. There were also some early disputes about casting: in an article commemorating the film’s 20th anniversary, Kristin Scott Thomas said that the initial producers of the film wanted Demi Moore cast in the role of Katherine to ensure box office appeal. But in the end, it seemed Minghella’s instincts, and Michael Ondaatje’s significant involvement, created the film many consider the blueprint for the Oscar-baiting prestige dramas of the 1990s and beyond.
What critics thought: It’s tough to find a less-than-glowing review of The English Patient, which carries the rating of 84 per cent on the critic aggregator site Metacritic. Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers singled out Minghella’s streamlining of the story (he focused on the love story between the Ralph Fiennes and Scott Thomas characters and told the story in a more linear, chronological sequence), saying the structure change worked well. Even with the changes, Travers said, “Ondaatje’s poetic spirit flares brightly onscreen.” The film was nominated for 12 Academy Awards and won nine.
What audiences thought: The movie was a huge box office success, especially for a drama geared toward adults, earning more than $230 million US on a budget of about $30 million US. It seems that at least some people thought the movie didn’t quite live up to the hype, though. In a popular episode of Seinfeld, Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) becomes a polarizing figure in her circle when she admits that she hated The English Patient.
Also worth noting: at 2 hours and 41 minutes, The English Patient was considered outrageously long in 1996. But that was just a sign of things to come, as audience’s have seen ever-increasing run times for many films hoping to earn Oscar nominations.
At a mere 2 hours and 29 minutes, The Goldfinch at least doesn’t have that to worry about.