The Goldfinch movie flopped. But its problems go back to its Pulitzer-winning source material.
Two weeks ago, The Goldfinch — the new movie based on Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 novel — arrived in theaters and immediately, catastrophically, flopped.
The Goldfinch made just $2.6 million in its opening weekend, the sixth-worst opening of all time for a movie opening on more than 2,500 different screens, which is an especially disastrous beginning given that it cost $45 million to make. And critics were no kinder than the box office; currently, The Goldfinch has a rating of 27 percent on Rotten Tomatoes. At Vox, film critic Alissa Wilkinson concluded that the story simply “doesn’t work on screen.”
I’d like to go one step further. The problem is not just that The Goldfinch doesn’t work on the screen. In fact, the reason The Goldfinch doesn’t work on the screen is that it doesn’t really work on the page either. It’s a hollow, thematically empty book filled with hollow, psychologically empty characters, and it suffocates under the sheer weight of its 771 pages.
That’s not to say this book fails entirely. For much of its lengthy sprawl, The Goldfinch has an immersive, read-it-under-the-covers-with-a-flashlight vitality. It has the kind of storytelling that you can get lost in — just like you can get lost in the immense and palpable aesthetic pleasure the book takes in objects, in signifiers of tony expensive taste paired with a virtuous middle-class budget. When I tried rereading the book recently, it never felt like a chore to pull out the big heavy hardcover and slip beneath the stream of the plot; after only a few pages, I started to crave it like coffee.
But then I would shut the book again, and instead of a pleasurable caffeine buzz, I would only feel let down and disappointed and a little as though the book had manipulated me by trying to get me to buy into cheap sentiment. I couldn’t hold on to anything from those long indulgent reading sprees except for a trite epigram about how good things can come from bad actions and a long description of someone’s extremely boring drug trip. (Is anything in the world more boring than reading about someone else’s drug habits?)
Once the spell of Tartt’s storytelling subsides, there is nothing left to care about: not the characters, not the plot, not the self-consciously Dickensian coincidences that push the whole thing forward. And by about halfway through the novel, that spell is broken, more or less for good.
Pulitzer Prize or no, The Goldfinch is a fundamentally and massively flawed book. And the movie fails because it only exacerbates the flaws that were already there in the source material.
The Goldfinch might have a Pulitzer, but plenty of people have been saying for years it’s a bad book
The consensus on the Goldfinch movie might be that it’s a bad movie that fails a good book, but back when the Goldfinch book first came out, there wasn’t any real consensus as to whether it was a good book or not. The debate goes back to 2013, and both sides have plenty of heavy hitters working for them.
Batting for the “it’s good” team is the Pulitzer committee, which called the book “a beautifully written coming-of-age novel with exquisitely drawn characters … a book that stimulates the mind and touches the heart” in 2014, upon awarding The Goldfinch its top prize. Also on the pro side was then-chief New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani, who gave The Goldfinch a stamp of approval from the literary set when she called it “rapturous” and “symphonic.” And it got genre-savvy storytelling cred when Stephen King declared it “a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind.”
But the “it’s bad” team has superstars of its own. Shortly after The Goldfinch won the Pulitzer in 2014, Vanity Fair published a lengthy article about all of the literary critics who were disappointed by the win, and it quotes various literary tastemakers’ scathing remarks toward the book.
The New Yorker’s James Wood: “I think that the rapture with which this novel has been received is further proof of the infantilization of our literary culture.” The now-disgraced Lorin Stein of the Paris Review: “A book like The Goldfinch doesn’t undo any clichés — it deals in them.” The novelist and critic Francine Prose: “Everyone was saying this is such a great book and the language was so amazing. I felt I had to make quite a case against it.”
The Goldfinch was a genuine hit in 2013. It sold more than 1.5 million copies in its first few months out. But even then, it was a hit with an asterisk next to its name. There was no critical consensus on this book, just two opposing camps.
One camp pointed out that The Goldfinch was inarguably immersive and argued that its preoccupations with art and beauty and morality were profound enough to justify everything else. The second camp argued that immersion is not everything and that the book’s thematic preoccupations were only so much hollow posturing.
I’ve shown you my cards already. I’m with the second camp. But that doesn’t mean I think there’s nothing good in this book.
The Goldfinch is obsessed with class and taste. That’s both a good thing and a bad thing.
The plot of The Goldfinch has been called “Dickensian” so often that the term has ceased to mean much, but it really is a Dickens pastiche. It concerns a boy, Theo, who at the beginning of the novel is trapped with his mother inside the Metropolitan Museum of Art when a terrorist bomb goes off. Theo’s mother dies. Theo himself escapes, clutching the 17th-century Dutch painting of a chained bird that gives the book its name, and over the course of what ensues he tells himself time and time again he will give the painting back, without ever quite managing to do it.
We follow Theo over the course of the next decade or so as he goes through his Great Expectations phase (plucked out of obscurity by a remote but perhaps benevolent older woman for whose children he seems to be fated), his Oliver Twist phase (a life of petty crime and deep homoerotic friendship), his Old Curiosity Shop phase (living with an avuncular older man in a quirky but Edenic antiques shop), always surrounded by characters who are ostensibly American but speak with unmistakably posh British cadences. Theo is propelled along this course by unlikely coincidence after unlikely coincidence, forever running into exactly the wrong person on exactly the wrong Manhattan street, but since this is a Dickens pastiche, plot-by-unlikely-coincidence is only to be expected.
What’s perhaps most distinctly Dickensian about The Goldfinch, though, is its obsession with morality as signified by taste and social class. This book takes place in a world in which being a good person always and consistently means having educated and cosmopolitan tastes (strong sense of beauty! intelligent!), but satisfying them with Tartt’s version of middle-class funds (bohemian! not corrupted by wealth! virtuous!), which in Tartt’s world look a lot like what other people would call untold riches. Being a bad person, meanwhile, means having bad aesthetic taste or having good taste but satisfying it with immoral levels of wealth. Poor people and non-white people are more often than not pushed discreetly off-page.
On the side of good: Theo’s mother (basically the Virgin Mary), who put herself through art school by modeling and takes the time to teach Theo about the Dutch masters even though they can only afford one servant. And Hobie (basically Jesus), who runs an antiques shop at which Theo finds refuge, is so innocent to the ways of the world that he is slowly bankrupting himself through his devotion to beauty and refusal to sell his furniture to the undeserving, and doesn’t even own a TV.
Bad: Mr. Barbour, the posh Upper East Side dad with whom Theo briefly lives who likes sailing and Maxfield Parrish (middlebrow); Theo’s own dad, who lives in tacky suburban Las Vegas and used to act on TV (lowbrow).
Questionable: Mrs. Barbour, the wife of the Maxfield-Parrish-loving dude, who on the one hand has good taste in art and antiques (good person trait!) but on the other hand is rich and icy (bad person trait!). She’s more or less the only person allowed to occupy an ambiguous place in the sensibility of this novel, which is what allows her to eventually reveal herself as a Miss Havisham analogue.
I find this moral system very pleasurable to read; it ignites a warm glow of intellectual snobbery in me. Wow, I think smugly as I read over Mr. Barbour’s ode to Maxfield Parrish, he doesn’t even know that Maxfield Parrish should only be liked self-consciously, as kitsch. How embarrassing is that? I am so much better than he is.
And that snobbery, I think, is one of the major pleasures of The Goldfinch, the way it encourages its reader to feel knowing and wise. It’s just that this pleasure does not last past the moment I close the book and realize that all that just happened was The Goldfinch encouraging me to think like an asshole, and I also remember that I have a Maxfield Parrish print hanging in my apartment because I unironically like him.
What the snobbery does is amplify another thing The Goldfinch does really, really well and which strikes me as more valuable than moralizing on the taste of the cosmopolitan elite: namely, glorying in the aesthetic pleasures of objects. The richest passages of this novel are mostly just long lists of nouns, fine paintings and antique furniture and threadbare Oriental rugs that build on each other in long, voluptuous passages. Here’s how Theo describes Hobie’s furniture restoration workshop:
[I looked] down at the labyrinth at the foot of the stairs, blond wood like honey, dark wood like poured molasses, gleams of brass and gilt and silver in the weak light. As with the Noah’s Ark, each species of furniture was ranked with its own kind: chairs with chairs, settees with settees; clocks with clocks, desks and cabinets and highboys standing in stiff ranks opposite. Dining tables, in the middle, formed narrow, maze-like paths to be edged around. At the back of the room a wall of tarnished old mirrors, hung frame to frame, glowed with the silvered light of old ballrooms and candlelit salons.
That tumble of clauses pushing you forward, letting you get tangled up in the syntax and luxuriate in the syrupy, gleaming wood; the nerdy joy of throwing in the highboys along with the more mundane kinds of furniture; that last evocative image of Gilded Age New York: it’s hedonistic to read and it carries a nearly physical pleasure. The Goldfinch is great at luxurious aesthetic hedonism, and that’s an enormous part of what makes it so immersive. It is the only part of this book that stays with me when I close it.
But that aesthetic pleasure does not ground itself in anything beyond those long lists of objects. It does not emerge from coherent or psychologically compelling characters, because those characters exist only as signifiers of the moral value of cosmopolitan taste. It does not emerge from the plot, because the plot is just a series of grotesque and unlikely coincidences.
The long and loving lists of nouns do get a little justification from The Goldfinch’s central theme, which is that life is terrible, death always wins, and deathless art offers us one of our only meaningful reprieves from mass entropy. But this idea is trotted out so clumsily in Theo’s endless-seeming final monologue that it’s hard to feel like it’s interesting enough to withstand the weight of this entire book.
“I feel I have something very serious and urgent to say to you, my non-existent reader, and I feel I should say it as urgently as if I were standing in the room with you,” Theo says in the final paragraph, before delivering this weighty message: “That life — whatever else it is — is short.” Oh. Okay.
What we’re left with is a book whose central joy is intrinsically tied to the medium: It’s all about the lists of nouns with very little else behind them. When The Goldfinch becomes a movie, then, the story’s central pleasure cannot come with it. Sure, you can put all those fetishized objects on screen, and director John Crowley does — his version of Hobie’s workshop is a warm and wood-paneled nest that you want to get lost in, and the costumes are so luscious I spent most of the movie pining after all the knitwear on display — but they are no longer the thing that the story is about. They become the thing that the story is happening around.
All of which means that The Goldfinch’s gorgeous, empty heart is missing. And without that, this already-crumbling story collapses into dust.
Author: Constance Grady