As any book lover can attest to, book-to-movie adaptations are both a reader’s dream and bane of existence. We’ve all experienced that swell of excitement and apprehension at a beloved book hitting the big screen, only for one of two outcomes to arise: it’s a fulfilling adaptation or it’s an unsatisfactory imitation. The Goldfinch, despite its literary promise, falls into the latter.
At a whopping 962 pages, the film’s paperback predecessor is a behemoth of a read, laden with minute and excess detail entailing each moment and thought of Theo’s life. While painstaking to read at times, it emphasizes his defining moments, his slow-paced crawl of development from youth to adulthood, and paints a vivid picture of who Theo is. And the film tries, and fails, to accomplish that same effect. Much of the book’s impact lies in Theo’s inner strife and internal battles, the ever-present imprint of the tragedy that altered his life, yet this vital facet to the book doesn’t come across in the film—a loss that severely dilutes the film’s impact.
In part, this largely hinges on the pacing discrepancy from book to movie. Unlike the book’s lackadaisical pacing, with laser-like focus on fleshing out even the barest of details, the movie adopts a much faster pace. Though a necessary alteration, for the book dawdles quite a bit in progressing the story, the film takes it much too far. The plot moves at a breakneck pace in all the wrong scenes, speeding through and skimming over important events as though they lack importance. It makes these moments feel so rushed and fleeting they border on trivial while the book tirelessly capitalizes on their gravity.
Theo’s interpersonal relationships in the film are executed in much the same manner: so glossed over and surface level, they seem to offer almost nothing to the plot whatsoever. Hobie; Boris; Kitsey; Mrs. Barbour; even Pippa, the woman Theo actually loves, is grossly downplayed. While the book adeptly expresses their roles and significance in Theo’s life, its cinematic counterpart neglects to do so to the same extent.
Furthermore, the book approaches the story chronologically, beginning with the life-altering moment of Theo’s youth to the aftermath in his early twenties. Rather than adopt the book’s more fluid storytelling, the movie alternates between Theo’s past and present, jumping into flashbacks and chunks of backstory in a manner that feels choppy and, quite frankly, confusing. Had I not read the book beforehand, I’m certain I’d have been sitting in puzzlement as the end credits rolled, trying to piece things together. The film simply lacks the cohesion of the book’s chronological approach.
Amid all the adaptive shortcomings, the only aspect the film accomplishes well is how true it stays to the book. Except for a few changes, it sticks closely to the plot, accurate from how certain events unfold down to the dialogue. The majority of the alterations are fairly minimal, whether that be moving a certain conversation earlier/later in the film or removing small aspects entirely. Overall, these adjustments don’t really take away much from the story as a whole except towards the end, where some key elements are altered. In both the book and movie, Theo—for lack of giving away spoilers on my end—contemplates a grave decision. Yet, in the book, Theo rethinks that choice all on his own without outside intervention, whereas the film has an outside force make that choice for him. Not only does this difference take away some from Theo’s character, but also minimizes, and even removes, subsequent events.
With all the book’s unique, intricate, and deeply-explored facets, it’s one of those stories that just doesn’t translate well to the screen, another dud among literary adaptations.