Here’s a conundrum: How is it that The Goldfinch the novel got stellar reviews (not to mention a Pulitzer Prize), and The Goldfinch the movie, despite being a remarkably faithful adaptation of the story, very much has not? Unfortunately, we’re not gonna be able to answer that right now. If anyone could solve the problem of adaptation once and for all, it would no doubt be worth more than the work of art at the center of this story, a 17th-century painting of a chained goldfinch by a Dutch master. What we are here to do is tell you exactly where the book and film diverge.
Most often, the answer is that the movie, even at two-and-a-half hours long, can’t fit in as much as does the 800-page novel, forcing director John Crowley and screenwriter Peter Straughan to pare down a bit on details, characters, and plot. Remember, we’re going through the whole movie and the whole book, so don’t say we didn’t warn you about spoilers.
In both the book and the movie, the story begins, of course, when a boy named Theo (played as a tween by Oakes Fegley and as an adult by Ansel Elgort) steals The Goldfinch from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the chaotic few moments after a bombing kills his mother and ruptures his world. The main difference between the book version of Theo’s mom (Hailey Wist) and the movie version is how much better we get to know her and how much more time we get to spend with her in the book. In the movie, we never learn her first name (Audrey), and we don’t even see her face till the end. The book paints her as someone who was beloved by her son and doormen alike, which makes it all the more devastating when she dies, but in the movie, most of that is left up to our imaginations.
Toward the end of the movie, it’s treated as a bit of a revelation that The Goldfinch was Theo’s mom’s favorite painting, whereas it’s right there in the early parts of the book. We also find out that as a child, Theo’s mother was afraid of The Anatomy Lesson, the painting she goes to look at right before the bomb goes off and therefore the reason she and Theo aren’t together when the bombing happens.
After the Bombing
In the book, Andy (Theo’s old friend whose family he is sent to live with) and Theo get along well from the get-go, but in the movie, they’re awkward together at first.
In both versions, meanwhile, one of the people who died in the bombing was a man named Welty, and right before, Theo have a conversation in which Welty gives Theo a ring. In the movie, there are no indications that Theo doesn’t remember the conversation; Theo explains the ring when Mrs. Barbour finds it. In the book, the ring helps Theo remembers the name “Hobart and Blackwell,” which leads him to the antique store where he meets Hobie, his eventual caretaker.
Though Tartt describes Hobie as white (the novel compares him to “antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists”) as well as exceedingly tall (“six foot four or six five, at least”), the movie casts Jeffrey Wright, who is black and around 5-foot-11. Still, in personality, Hobie is pretty much the same.
The book portrays more of Theo’s life after he leaves his father’s house in Las Vegas and goes to live with Hobie in New York. During this period, Theo studies to get into a prep school, Hobie becomes Theo’s guardian, and Theo sees Pippa, a fellow survivor, again—he is portrayed keeping in touch with her and his friend Boris in a shallow way via texting. Theo gets into a prep school, but instead of being a good student, he begins learning the antiques trade from Hobie.
Theo learns more about Pippa’s family backstory in the novel: Her mother, Juliet, died of cancer, and Welty was her mother’s brother; they shared a cruel father. Also in the book and not the movie, Theo and Pippa kiss before she leaves to live with her aunt.
Most of the changes to Boris’ character between the book and film are just the result of the book being able to contain more detail. For example, in the book, Boris’ father alternates between affection and violence; in the movie, we only see the latter, and even that we only see briefly. The movie also skips the part of the book where Theo and Boris’ relationship gets strained because Boris gets a girlfriend, Kotku, but in both cases Theo doesn’t realize that Boris has stolen The Goldfinch from him. There’s no such character in the movie.
Getting The Goldfinch Back
In the book, Theo and Boris reunite after Boris runs after him down the street—rather than inside a bar, where they meet in the movie (and where Theo’s only gone to get drugs, incidentally). Boris reveals to Theo in the book that he sought him out; the movie treats their meeting as if it might be a coincidence. Also, the movie completely leaves out the character Horst, Boris’ associate in art crimes who has an apartment full of forged art.
In the book, Theo does heroin while holed up in the hotel in Amsterdam, distraught about coming so close but failing to recover the painting. There’s no heroin in the movie; Theo instead abuses pills. In the book, Theo has a vision of Andy in a dream during this period; this isn’t in the movie. In the book, Theo thinks about killing himself or turning himself in, but Boris interrupts him before he does anything; in the movie, Theo takes enough pills to kill himself, but Boris finds him in his hotel room and rescues him.
When book Theo returns home after Amsterdam, he has a talk with Hobie about what he was doing with the restored antiques and how to make everything right. The movie is more open-ended: You just see him show up as Hobie is trimming the Christmas tree. Both the book and movie leave as an open question what will happen with Theo’s romantic life: He doesn’t love Kitsey, his fiancée, and Pippa, whom he does love, says they can never be together.
In the movie, Theo’s father (Luke Wilson), in the context of gambling on sports, mentions that being a Scorpio gives him an advantage and then says astrology is very common in the sports betting world: But this isn’t just the movie trying to be trendy with astrology; it’s right there in the book—in fact, the book has Larry’s sun and rising signs: “Sun in Scorpio, Leo Rising,” Tartt wrote. But there’s even more! Namely that we get Theo’s sign, too: Cancer, which his father, naturally, disparages.