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It, The Goldfinch, and temporal mismatches

Jesse

Jesse is a cofounder of SportsAlcohol.com even though he doesn't care for sports or alcohol. His favorite movie is Ron Howard's The Paper. I think. This is what happens when you don't write your own bio. I know for sure likes pie.

While it always feels a little gross to solicit praise for any of the big five (formerly six) movie studios, a microsecond of appreciation, please, maybe, for Warner Bros., a conglomerate that nonetheless saw fit to release two supersized literary adaptations in as many week. It Chapter Two may be a blockbuster, but it’s an expensive R-rated horror-movie adaptation of a very good book. The Goldfinch, an adaptation of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer-winning bestseller, is unlikely to follow in its $200 million-or-so footsteps. But Warner made it anyway, tasking director John Crowley (Brooklyn) and screenwriter Peter Straughan with taming Tartt’s 800-page opus. That this sort of Oscar-hungry play can now feel like bittersweet nostalgia feels oddly appropriate to the movie does with its timeline—or what it hopes to do, anyway.

Like It, The Goldfinch weaves together its lead characters’ past and present, and has to make some temporal adjustments to do so. Stephen King’s seminal 1986 horror novel whips between 1986 and 30 years earlier, following the reunion of childhood friends and the story of how they became bonded together in the first place. (Even if you haven’t read the book or seen the film, you may have intuited that killer clowns are involved.) Because the book is very long, the film adaptation has been split into two films, and the chronology re-organized: movie one is about the characters as kids, and Chapter Two is about the characters as adults.

The Goldfinch does the opposite: The book (I’m told) proceeds retrospectively but chronologically, following Theo, a boy who loses his mother in an art-museum terrorist attack, steals a painting from the rubble, and eventually becomes involved with antique-dealing and, by proxy, the Russian mob. The movie cuts between adult Theo (Ansel Elgort) and his younger self (Oakes Fegley).

Neither movie stays completely true to their narrative conceit. It Chapter Two, trying to forge cinematic bonds between the kids and their grown-up replacements, and presumably understanding how much audiences loved the kid characters in the first film, includes plenty of flashbacks to the timeline of the first movie (though the scenes are new, to the point where the kid actors are digitally de-aged, sometimes creepily and noticeably). The first half of The Goldfinch inevitably skews more toward the younger Theo, while the second half is heavier on Elgort, even though they’re both present all the way through.

It’s easy enough to suggest, backseat critic-style, that these adaptations should have left well enough alone, and trusted the structure of their source material, and that may be well be the case (as an It reader, it’s even more tempting to suggest that they should have just found a way to make one damn movie that works, instead of two that only kind of do). But movies are well-suited to these kinds of adjustments; prose sometimes needs to establish a pattern (alternating chapters) or hold up signposts, while movies can make time-jumps so concise. One shot of Fegley or Elgort, and you more or less know where you are; that goes double, or maybe times seven, for those It kids after spending a whole movie with them.

And that is exactly what makes both The Goldfinch and It such dispiriting, bittersweet-for-the-wrong-reasons experiences. The reunion angle of It is a major part of its primal power. The group of outcasts comes to rely on each other, rather than the various ineffectual adults in their lives, and team up to defeat a force of unfathomable evil (or at least beat it back into hiding). Later, when It resurfaces, they attempt to finish the job—and must remember old lives that they’ve let themselves forget. It’s a heightened, fantastical version of an old cliché: Hearing someone’s voice (in this case, the phonecalls from group historian Mike that kick off both Chapter Two and the original novel) and having memories flood back—or, stranger still, to feel the flood of memories knocking against a dam, but not quite breaking through yet.

The It movies simplify some of this into cheap insta-nostalgia. As fun as it is to see the talented kids back on their bikes for certain scenes of It Chapter Two, the movie is an object lesson in the trickiness of portraying youthful friendships and then translating them into adult roles. Those relationships are supposed to form the backbone of the newer film, as it introduces the grown-up versions of Bill (James McAvoy), Beverly (Jessica Chastain), Ben (Jay Ryan), Richie (Bill Hader), Mike (Isaiah Mustafa), Eddie (James Ransone), and Stanley (Andy Bean). After the friends (or most of them, anyway) come together in their hometown, director Andy Muschietti nimbly edits together a series of haunted-house set pieces where each goes on a quest for a childhood “totem” to aid them in the fight against evil. Each character confronts a personal demon, provided by their collective demon, Pennywise the Clown. And each scene has a little flashback to the It kids, explaining the objects’ importance.

This is meant as an elegant solution to the book’s unwieldly narrative, and technically speaking, it is; Muschietti’s transitions between past and present are often graceful, and they’re true to the spirit of the original narrative. As it turns out, that includes the book’s unwieldiness, because the adults don’t really have as much to do, narratively speaking. In theory, mixing their solo adventures with kid flashbacks is clever; in practice, it’s repetitive, and often traps the charming kid actors from the first film in a series of exposition-laden moments that play like deleted scenes. Though that earlier movie had some overcrowding problems—leaving Eddie and Stanley feeling vaguely interchangeable and poor Mike barely developed at all—it at least had the space for some effective shorthanding of the group dynamic. Adding the adult versions doesn’t deepen those the relationships, with certain developments (like an unspoken longing experienced by Richie, well-played by Hader) feeling almost like retcons. The kids themselves become the movie’s totems, providing pithy bits of backstory in place of real emotional connection. It’s arguable that this is at least semi-intentional—that by their 40s, the characters’ childhood friendships (which most of them barely remember at the beginning of the film) are more symbolic than functional. A less sentimental movie might have better integrated that into the story; it’s telling that the bittersweet memory fades of King’s novel aren’t a major feature of the film’s postscript.

The Goldfinch only has one totem: that stolen painting Theo secrets away and takes with him as he bounces from a childhood friend’s well-to-do family in Manhattan to his actual father’s ne’er-do-well makeshift family out west. The film’s childhood scenes are busy and a little overwrought, but Crowley captures the details of childhood helplessness—the friendships that form in its wake, the routines that form, the alliances and negotiations. The rough-edged-yet-tender friendship between Theo and Boris (Finn Wolfhard, who also appears in It) feels lived-in, yet somehow, when it resurfaces in adult form, it feels as phony and superficial as if the characters were being introduced for the first time. Forced to interact with what might feel like an entirely different movie, these past-present narratives become a minefield for the poor actors—none poorer than Ansel Elgort, who feels utterly adrift as the grown-up Theo, like he’s dressing as a famous literary character for Halloween. Finn Wolfhard, meanwhile, has to navigate this space twice, and while he’s not exactly bad in either movie, he has trouble forging much kinship with his adult counterparts: Bill Hader is basically doing his own thing, while while Aneurin Barnard (the older Boris) feels weirdly over-imitative of his younger self.

As in It Chapter Two, it’s possible to read the adult play-acting of The Goldfinch as an intentional reflection of arresting childhood traumas. It’s also possible to read it as a bad movie spliced into a good one—more so than It, which has some pleasures on the adult side of things even if they’re ultimately kinda self-negating. There’s something both magical and clumsy about the tricks these two movies play with time, not least because both movies are overlong to the point of distention. The way they stretch out, trying to encompass the fullness of years passing, of faces changing, of childhood traumas echoing, feels like an authentic struggle. It was a struggle even with the “realness” of Boyhood, where Richard Linklater really did film some of the same actors across twelve years of incremental, accumulating changes, but there the imperfections and hiccups and narrative detours felt, in their own way, true. It’s hard to fit life into a coherent. It Chapter Two and The Goldfinch find a more specialized, less moving truth: It’s hard to fit novels into movies.