Can an epic novel ever be directly adapted to the big screen? In spirit, certainly, but almost never in a direct page-to-page fashion. Filmmakers often have to change details and structure in order to make a great film out of an epic novel. Books can present internal dialogue and character digressions in ways that film cannot easily capture, even as movies can, in one image, depict ideas that take many pages in print.
Director John Crowley knows this well. He found great success with his film version of Colm Toibin's acclaimed novel, "Brooklyn," in 2015. Crowley's movie captured the spirit and feeling of the book with great fidelity, but changed a number of details, particularly the ending, in order to do so.
Now Crowley has made a film based on Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, "The Goldfinch." The book is a hefty drama that runs almost 800 pages. It features dozens of characters and spans decades in the life of Theo Decker, whose mother is killed by a bombing when he's a child. The director has explained some of the changes he had to make in order to pull the film together; let's talk about those, and look at why we still expect him to capture the book's spirit.
On paper, "The Goldfinch" is linear. We meet Theo as a child (played by Oakes Fegley in the film) and follow along as he experiences a devastating loss when his mother is killed — which leads him to snatch her favorite painting, "The Goldfinch." The book follows Theo as he grows up (to be played by Ansel Elgort in the movie) and transitions from one improvised family to another, with his loss and the theft of the painting constantly affecting his life.
Earlier this summer, Crowley told Empire that his big change in adapting the film was to make it non-linear. That, he said, “allowed us an entrance to a more cinematic storytelling form,” in which “the past and the present sit on top of each other a lot more than they perhaps do in the book. That allowed us into a certain kind of visual editorial idea, if that makes sense – you’re intercutting in a way that’s rather exciting.”
All of which makes sense. Film invites exactly those layered narratives that Crowley is suggesting. Cutting back and forth between time periods in Theo's life, as formative experiences lead to big decisions later in life, is a great way to condense a novel that is far too long to otherwise fit into a two-hour movie.
Change can be great when the right people are steering the ship. THE GOLDFINCH has more than John Crowley and his terrific cast to lean on. Oscar winner Roger Deakins, who is among the greatest living cinematographers, shot the movie. In films like PRISONERS and NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, just to name two out of many possible examples, Deakins has contributed the sort of storytelling that no script can quite capture, just by the way his lenses capture actors and the world they're in.
Deakins has an excellent roster of actors to photograph. Nicole Kidman co-stars as Mrs. Barbour, the wealthy and nurturing mother of one of Theo's friends, who takes in the young man after his loss. Sarah Paulson ("American Horror Story"), plays Xandra, the far less respectable girlfriend of Theo's father, Larry, a gambling addict played by Luke Wilson. And Jeffrey Wright ("Westworld") plays Hobie, who initially becomes Theo's guardian, and then his business partner.
At CinemaCon Ansel Elgort said of the movie, "I hope that people find a piece of themselves in the story, and I hope that whatever drew all those people to that book will also draw them to this movie. I think they will be drawn to this movie, because they did a pretty great job capturing that tone and telling this epic story."
All images courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures.