The first mistake in making a movie of "The Goldfinch" was making a movie of "The Goldfinch."
Donna Tartt's Pulitzer Prize-winning blockbuster is nearly 800 pages long, divided into discrete sections that explore periods in the life of Theo Decker, whom we meet as a tween and follow into young adulthood. The novel is like Charles Dickens' "David Copperfield" (there's even a character with a Dickensy name, Mr. Bracegirdle) in that it features a blank hero whose life is shaped by being plopped into a series of extreme living situations where he learns from the wild characters with whom he must interact.
Could Tartt have said, "Dear Hollywood: This book should be a prestige-TV miniseries" any louder?
"Goldfinch" is all but divided into TV episodes, as Theo (played at first by Oakes Fegley and then by Ansel Elgort) begins in his happy, middle-class life. Then, his mother dies in an art museum explosion, during which a confused Theo swipes the masterwork that gives the story its title. He ends up doing time with a swank Manhattan family, a kind antiques dealer who helps him meet a bewitching girl named Pippa, his corrupt father in Las Vegas and vicious mobsters in Amsterdam.
Both the novel and movie are memory tales, with the adult Theo trying to make sense of the events of his life, but novels don't work the same as movies and screenwriter Peter Straughan wisely reconceived "The Goldfinch," jumbling together the elements in a nonchronological stew that matches Theo's bewilderment. The events that begin the book aren't shown until the end of the movie, which allows Straughan and director John Crowley ("Brooklyn") to craft a satisfying conclusion. What comes before it, though? Not so satisfying.
They've managed to cram into the movie almost everything that happened in the book, minus its feel-good coda, but "crammed" is the operative word. "The Goldfinch" film is all plot, with no room for the wit and eccentricities of character that are the deepest pleasures in the book. It's supposed to be a picaresque adventure, in which Theo is shaped by his colorful guardians while protecting the secret painting that forms his only link to his mother and to happier times. 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.
What we are supposed to believe is a great, undying love, for instance, doesn't register because we've barely met the girl/woman Theo loves. And scenes in which Theo is reunited with people he hasn't seen for years don't have much impact because, in movie time, it has only been a couple of seconds since he saw them. There are ways to make this sort of epic work onscreen, but "The Goldfinch" is so busy making sure it functions as a SparkNotes version of the book that its only concession to the non-plot themes of the novel is to pause occasionally to ram narration down our throats: "We're so accustomed to disguising ourselves to others that, in the end, we become disguised to ourselves." Noted.
"The Goldfinch" succeeds at some of the things movies do well: It looks lush and ghostly, thanks to Oscar-winning cinematographer Roger Deakins. Kelley Dixon's fluid editing helps visualize how Theo's mind works. And, as the antiques dealer, Jeffrey Wright projects gravity and warmth while wearing a diamond-patterned cardigan that is the best thing in the movie. It's just that it never should have been a movie in the first place.