The Goldfinch: can a film solve Donna Tartt's most divisive book?

The hefty Pulitzer-winning novel divided critics for being too long and too detailed – yet it is more cinematic than The Secret History, writes John Mullan

If it is surprising that none of Donna Tartt’s three novels has made it to the screen before now, it’s perhaps more surprising that The Goldfinch will be the first. Warner Brothers bought the rights to her first, bestselling, novel, The Secret History, in 1992, the year of its publication. With its cast of beautiful young obsessives drawn to murderous violence it begged to be filmed. Yet it never happened; Alan Pakula, who was to have directed it, died in 1998. Later, Gwyneth Paltrow and her brother acquired the rights, but also failed to make the movie. (The rights have duly reverted to the novelist herself.)

Now, however, Tartt’s third novel, The Goldfinch (2013), has been made into a film. Directed by John Crowley, who was responsible for the adaptation of Colm Tóibín’s dauntingly inward novel Brooklyn, it stars Oakes Fegley and Ansel Elgort as Tartt’s protagonist and narrator, Theo Decker, at different stages of his life. (One big challenge to the film-maker is the eight-year jump halfway through the novel, which takes Theo from his early teens to his 20s.) Aged 13, the only child of a single mother, Theo is cast adrift when she is killed in a bomb explosion at a New York art gallery. He survives, and in the chaos purloins a painting that his mother loved and with which he becomes obsessed. Nicole Kidman features as Mrs Barbour, the mother of his schoolfriend Andy, who initially appears to adopt Theo. Luke Wilson plays his feckless, self-deluding father, who reappears to take him off to a strange new life in Las Vegas.

While The Goldfinch was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer prize for fiction, it divided critics. One challenge to film-makers is its length (864 pages in the current paperback edition; well over 300,000 words). It was called “Dickensian” by some admiring reviewers, but the largest Dickens novels rely on highly elaborate plotting and a large cast of characters. The Goldfinch offers neither of these.

The reason it is so long is that, like Tartt’s two previous novels, it is thick with circumstantial detail. Tartt cannot narrate even the least significant episode without fully visualising it. Tartt’s novelistic modus operandi is, indeed, cinematic. Often the density of detail is such that the sentences become verbless lists. Tartt’s narrator catalogues the world’s visual clutter as greedily as any unblinking movie camera. The descriptions of the Barbours’ huge Park Avenue apartment, with all its dark wood and chinoiserie, or the new-build Las Vegas house at the edge of the desert, where Theo has to live with his father, are like instruction sheets for set builders. When Theo is taken to a violent criminal’s New York lair, you might expect him to be nervous, but he is too busy noticing the pictures on the wall and the books (Nabokov’s Despair, Heidegger’s Being and Time) on the table.

Tartt’s invents a narrator who is as obsessed with detail as she is (never has there been a teenage boy with such an eye for furnishings). Theo becomes attached to Hobie, a furniture restorer, and learns his methods, which are duly taught to the reader. He becomes a lover of antique artifacts. And it is not just things. We spend some 150 pages in Las Vegas, where at his new high school Theo befriends Boris, the pithily cynical son of a very dodgy Ukrainian mining speculator, with whom he is soon taking implausibly huge amounts of drugs. The high-school subcultures are precisely specified. Every good and bad drug trip is described with excruciating exactitude.

Boris is the novel’s most vivid character. Tartt fashions an idiolect for him that is a gift to any writer of a screenplay. She has a gift for rendering the unspoken scorn of the teenager for adult self-delusions, audible in the voice of Theo’s rich yet put-upon friend Andy. One of the best things in the book is the group portrait of Andy’s family, the absurdly privileged Barbours, in their grand apartment on Park Avenue. The covertly manic Mr Barbour, a little too enthusiastic about anything nautical. The perfect-seeming Mrs Barbour, dedicated to decorous charity and unperturbing high culture. Their eldest son, the hilariously seedy and baleful Platt, home from his super-exclusive boarding school because of some always unspecified sin. Tartt loves her East Coast élite types, here offering character actors some deliciously, maliciously observed variants. The Barbours’ mannered, sardonic repartee is one of the pleasures of the book that should successfully transfer to film.

Many of these characters take on the author’s specifying habits. When the brutish Platt tells Theo about his father’s tragic sailing accident, it is with a psychologically unlikely but narratively gripping precision. The gift for minutiae controls the novel’s setpiece scenes, whose re-creation any director should relish. Each of Tartt’s novels turns on an episode of shocking violence. Here we begin with the bomb explosion and its immediate aftermath, described with full, second-by-second immersion in the dizzying detail. Near the end of the novel, there is an entirely unexpected and chaotic shoot-out. This must, in fact, take only seconds, but is narrated in a characteristic Tartt slow motion that appears already cinematic. As Theo recounts sudden movements he talks of events “like a skip in a DVD throwing me forward in time”.

The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius on display in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands.
The Goldfinch by Carel Fabritius on display in the Mauritshuis in The Hague, Netherlands. Photograph: Michel Porro/Getty Images

The hard part will be the obsession that drives the plot. Theo steals The Goldfinch. It is a real painting: a small masterpiece of the Dutch golden age by Carel Fabritius, a brilliant pupil of Rembrandt. It hangs in the Mauritshuis gallery in The Hague. Fabritius died young, killed when the gunpowder magazine in the town of Delft exploded, destroying his studio (and many of his paintings). He left a tantalisingly small oeuvre, including this small, gorgeous painting of a bird, which, on close observation, is tethered by a small chain to its perch. In the novel, it is possible for the author to make us share the narrator’s passion for the modest work of art. The film will have to show the picture to us and make us understand its magnetism.

The story of Fabritius’s death must have been the germ for Tartt’s novel. When Theo thinks of the artist he dwells on “the element of chance: random disasters, mine and his, converging on the same unseen point”. Such chance leads him to fall for a red-headed girl whom he spots in the art gallery just before the explosion and then continues to encounter over the years that follow. She is his other obsession – but has almost nothing to say or do in the book. Here is the weakest aspect of the novel and the biggest test for the film-makers. They will surely want to fill out her character and Theo’s devotion to her; will they be able to resist the sentimentality that Tartt resolutely avoids? I would bet not.

• This article was amended on 6 September 2019 to correct some instances of misspellings of the characters of the Barbour family as Balfour.

• The Goldfinch is released on 27 September.


John Mullan

The GuardianTramp

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