“The Goldfinch” is this year’s entry in what has become, by now, a time-honored genre: the high-toned awards-bait literary adaptation that, for all the skill and care and ambition that’s been lavished on it, doesn’t quite work. Watching this faithful-in-a-literal-way yet somehow skittery cinematic transcription of Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2013 art-mystery novel, you can tell that the director, John Crowley (“Brooklyn”), and the screenwriter, Peter Straughan (“Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”), did everything in their power to get the novel up on screen. Roger Deakins’ luscious cinematography lends the movie the creamy clarity of a dream. Yet what you experience isn’t the book, exactly; it’s the strenuous creative labor that went into adapting it. What cast a winding spell on the page has become an occasionally compelling but mostly labored live-action illustration.
We’ve seen this happen a hundred times before, just about always during awards season. For every adaptation of a relatively recent literary sensation that succeeds in being vibrantly true to the book and, at the same time, emerges as a rich dramatic entity all its own, like “No Country for Old Men,” there are a dozen others like “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close,” “The Lovely Bones,” “Beloved,” “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,” or — going back to the ’70s and ’80s — “Daniel” and “Ironweed.” These are movies that exist in the culture for a moment or two as prestige spectacles of adaptation, yet they’re films that few viewers wind up going back to, because they never achieve a life apart from the optics of the novels they were based on.
Is that because they’ve simply failed to capture the magic of the book in question? More often than not, yes. Yet there are occasions when the big screen can lay bare, almost unwittingly, what was precious and contrived about a book to begin with. In the case of “The Goldfinch,” it’s a little of both.
Tartt’s novel, told in the first person, was a passionate and suspenseful tapestry — of coming-of-age adventure and wide-eyed adult turmoil, of art history and neo-“Ripley’s Game” thriller. The movie sticks true to all of it, yet the scenes are no longer connected to each other by a voice. Instead, we’re watching a thematically organized but disjointed drama that sometimes feels like three separate movies jammed together. At the same time, even the smallest incident is freighted.
The picture tells the story of an eager, owlish 13-year-old boy, Theodore Decker (Oakes Fegley), known as Theo, who lost his mother in a freak tragedy, when she was killed by a terrorist bomb at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. (Even in an age of mass shootings, the notion that a bombing like this one would take place feels at once resonant and metaphorically dated.) It’s also the story of an exquisite small painting from the museum’s walls that got handed to Theo by a mysterious man in the rubble — “The Goldfinch,” a 1654 image of a chained bird, by the Dutch painter Carel Fabritius (a contemporary of Vermeer’s), which Theo took and kept hidden, because it would always remind him of the mother he lost.
“The Goldfinch” is also about Theo’s life with the Barbours, a wealthy WASP family on Park Avenue who take him in as their own. And it’s about how Theo gets dragged away by his sleazebag father (Luke Wilson), who brings him to a barren suburban tract home on the outskirts of Las Vegas, where Theo befriends a moonstruck Ukrainian delinquent named Boris (Finn Wolfhard), whose I’ll-try-anything ways end up turning Theo into a drug addict who favors snorting crushed pills. It’s also about how Theo, after he grows up (at which point he’s played by Ansel Elgort), goes back to work for the gentle restorer of antiques (Jeffrey Wright) he first connected to, almost by fate, through the man in the rubble.
There’re a lot of cosmic connection holding “The Goldfinch” together. Back in the 1700s, the painting itself survived an explosion, and the way Theo keeps running into people he knows — like Boris, all grown up, at a Russian bar in New York — can make you feel like there’s way too much coincidence to what happens. Of course, that’s the way a certain kind of novel works; on the page, “The Goldfinch” had a poetry of serendipity. The movie, at times, just seems to be taking place in a Manhattan with only nine people in it.
Just about all the actors make an impression. Oakes Fegley, from “Pete’s Dragon,” invests the teenage Theo with a smirky toughness (it’s a relief that he’s less nerdish than he looks), and Nicole Kidman plays Mrs. Barbour with an elegant affection that makes you see why the boy would want to stay there. Luke Wilson, as the derelict dad, and Sarah Paulson, as his bitter sexpot paramour, incarnate a hustling Middle American rot, and Finn Wolfhard, from the “It” films and “Strangers Things,” plays Boris like a Slavic androgynous Bette Davis. (Aneurin Barnard’s performance as the adult Boris doesn’t begin to live up to that one.) Jeffrey Wright, more than any actor in the film, invests a love of artistic objects with a note of soulful complication. As for Ansel Elgort, he makes the adult Theo a perky but spy-like presence in a way that draws us to him. Ashleigh Cummings, as Pippa the redheaded girl who was also in the museum that fateful day, and Willa Fitzgerald, as the Barbours’ glamorous daughter (both become romantic presences for Theo), add a touch of glamour to the gloom.
Yet a morose and downbeat movie, too lost in the maze of its designer seriousness, is what “The Goldfinch” finally is. It’s a kind of glazed picaresque, and the closet thing it has to a reigning conflict is the guilt Theo feels over the fact that his mother’s death must somehow have been his fault. It’s an idea he needs to shake, but frankly it’s an idea that grows tiresome; it’s like watching “Ordinary People” redone as a lofty abstraction. Will fans of Donna Tartt’s novel turn out to see “The Goldfinch”? They may feel like they don’t have to; they may sense, in advance, that “the book was better.” But a film like “The Goldfinch” is aiming for a wider audience than just the novel’s fans. And having seen the movie, they may be driven to seek out the book, though less for the reason one hopes for — to expand the experience — than simply to discover what the fuss was about.