WE NEED YOUR HELP — Support your hometown newspaper by making a donation.
Randi Kreiss

My favorite novel, tossed in translation


"It’s for the birds.”

That was how The New York Times summed up the new movie version of Donna Tartt’s novel “The Goldfinch.”

It’s crazy, but I’m heartbroken. My disappointment is in direct proportion to the passion I feel for Tartt’s story about . . . Well, it’s a Dickensian novel with plots and subplots and unlikely eventualities and mind-blowing violence and tender mercies. When it was published in 2013 and won the Pulitzer, I turned the first page and fell in love.

There are multiple coincidences, á la Dickens, but somehow they all feel inevitable. The main character is the real “Goldfinch,” a small oil painting created in 1654 by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius, who died the same year in the Delft gunpowder arsenal explosion. All of these facts resonate in post-9/11 New York City, where the story is set. In her review, The Times’s Michiko Kakutani wrote of Tartt, “This novel pulls together all her remarkable storytelling talents into a rapturous, symphonic whole and reminds the reader of the immersive . . . pleasures of reading.”

You crack the cover, and if you’re a reader like me, you feel as if you’re at the top of a roller coaster, and it’s going to be the best ride of your life. That feeling, of knowing you’re in the hands of a master, that willingness to turn yourself over to the experience, doesn’t happen very often.

The story glows with gorgeous prose and complicated plots, and the main characters, Theo and Boris, are as memorable as Don Corleone and Scarlett O’Hara. Unfortunately, when Theo and Boris leaped to the silver screen, they suffered a fatal fall. The principals of “The Godfather” and “Gone With the Wind” fared far better in the translation from novel to cinema.

“The Goldfinch” opened last week to big-time promotion and quite a bit of anticipatory trepidation on my part. Sadly, the curtain rose and the story fell flat. Delicious complexity in the book translated to confusion on the screen. One reviewer said that the movie was “this year’s entry in what has become . . . a time-honored genre: the high-toned awards-bait literary adaption that . . . doesn’t quite work.”

I had big dreams for “The Goldfinch” as a movie, because it is a highly cinematic book. Unfortunately, as Adam Graham, of the Detroit News, reported, the movie is “as lifeless as a photocopy.” Chris Hewitt, of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, wrote, “It’s supposed to be a picaresque adventure . . . Instead, it feels like a movie where way too many things happen, and we don’t know anything about the people who make them happen.”

One reviewer called the movie “mangled and a pile of rubble and a botched job for the ages.” Another said, “The screenwriter remains faithful to the book when he should be committing adultery.”

Richard Roeper, of the Chicago Sun-Times, compared the flick to a “so-so NCIS episode,” adding that wonderful actors are stuck playing broad caricatures more suitable to an old episode of “Two and a Half Men.”

Nell Minow, of “Movie Mom,” said the screen version is “a mess . . . and not in an interesting way.” Another reviewer noted the movie’s “poor pacing, jarring transitions and a third act that feels like a completely different film.”

Mishandling Tartt’s glorious novel feels transgressive to me. I wanted the movie to be great. Her novel is a singular literary masterpiece, much in the way that its inspiration, “The Goldfinch,” is an irreplaceable work of art. Tartt reimagines the painting and invents a new life for it as a center of intrigue, deception and a symbol for the immortality of art juxtaposed with the fragility of life. Her characters live not just on the page, but also in memory, and to see them rendered as caricatures on the screen feels unbearable.

What a waste of time and money and real talent. This happens when producers go for the gold — an Oscar — and miss. This happens when the movie industry reinterprets an extraordinary novel, both literary and popular, hoping to guide it along the perilous road to the big screen, and it fails.

In all its intricacies and literary flourishes, in all its emotional power and terrifying suspense, the book will live on, like its namesake, the painting. The movie will soon disappear, and it feels like a lost opportunity to enjoy the story in a wholly new incarnation.

Copyright 2019 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at randik3@aol.com.