Movies

Taking ‘The Goldfinch’ from Page to Screen with Editor Kelley Dixon

Adapting Donna Tartt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Goldfinch for the screen was never going to be an easy task. At 771 pages, it would make a daunting TV miniseries – and director John Crowley managed to whittle it down into an under-two-and-a-half-hour feature film. As any team adapting existing material must, the filmmakers had to make a number of choices as to how they would present the story.

While the critical consensus seems mostly aligned against the changes to The Goldfinch, I tend to align with /Film’s own Meredith Borders in her review from TIFF. “The deliberate pacing and mysterious unveiling of information appear to have alienated many viewers,” she wrote out of the festival. “The film feels more like a gorgeous piece of emotional art than a straightforward story.” Whether that’s what people wanted – or felt – watching The Goldfinch, it was certainly the intent of the filmmaking team.

Just hours before the film’s world premiere in Toronto, I sat down for an extended discussion on the post-production of The Goldfinch with editor Kelley Dixon. Being fresh off both reading the novel and seeing the film, I came ready to dive into the nitty-gritty of how some of the biggest choices in the adaptation came to be. Her answers into both the larger structural changes, as well as some of the smaller details, proved an enlightening glimpse into a film that’s inspired strong reactions from viewers of many perspectives.

(This is probably obvious, but the following piece will contain spoilers for The Goldfinch – both Donna Tartt’s novel and the newly released film adaptation directed by John Crowley. If you’d rather approach either with a blank slate, bookmark this piece for later!)

A Cold Open Remained, But the Voiceover Changed

Fans of the book will be instantly comforted by the opening moments of The Goldfinch, which place us right where Donna Tartt begins – with an older version of protagonist Theo Decker (played at this stage in his life by Ansel Elgort) in Amsterdam, hiding from the authorities. Even the first line remains intact: “While I was still in Amsterdam, I dreamed about my mother for the first time in years.”

But after that, the alterations begin. According to Dixon, “we did change the front narration […] the narration to it is a little more abstract, and I don’t mean that as down on Donna Tartt in any way. It’s just a little more abstract, and she had 771 pages, and we don’t.” Theo’s voiceover begins to cut to the heart of the story and the internal conflict he must grapple with throughout the film.

Dixon likened the new narration of the section to a thesis statement for the film:

“The thesis being, ‘my mother died when I was young, I feel like it was my fault, people say it’s not, but I feel like it is.’ It’s an incredibly simplistic way, but […] it was necessary. We needed to set him up. As an audience member, we’re coming into this thing – we don’t know him, we don’t know what’s happened and we’re not going to find out.”

The Big Structural Change – Starting at the Novel’s Page 78

Another reason for needing a thesis statement becomes readily apparent after the film’s title card following the narration: we’ve skipped ahead to what was page 78 in Donna Tartt’s novel. The film’s narrative timeline begins not with the events of the day Theo’s mother dies in an explosion at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Instead, it starts the social workers dropping off Theo (played at this age by Oakes Fegley) at the posh Park Avenue home of the Barbour family.

Those who don’t know the book might not have made the connection between Theo’s scenario in the opening scene and his being dropped off at the Barbours, newly motherless and needing a family to take care of him. There’s something odd lingering in the air, but the dialogue in this section never explicitly explains just what that is. Dixon said that this structural change to the film was always a part of the script, and she recounted that the changes to the opening narration arising largely out of a need to anchor unfamiliar viewers. She described the conversations she had with director John Crowley in adding this context:

“You’ve set us up as an audience with a mystery. But we’re going to sit there and try to figure it out. What John wanted for us as an audience was to sit in the Barbours and try to understand this odd relationship. I was like, ‘But John, we’re still trying to figure out what the hell happened! How did he get here? When you do that, it’s automatic that we as an audience are going to try and figure out that mystery. If you want to bypass it, I don’t think we’re going to. We’re not going to get all these nuggets that you want us to because we’re still trying to figure out what the fuck happened.’ To help us with that, that’s when we took the abstract voiceover, and it started to be much more direct.”

The effects of starting at a different point in the narrative impacted more than just the opening of The Goldfinch. Dixon said the decision “presented challenges” in the editing room for her because, as she put it, “in the book, we are set up with a very real and understandable mother-son relationship. In the movie, we don’t get that.” From a plot perspective alone, the choice made by screenwriter Peter Straughan (with signoff from Crowley) makes clarity a task left up to Dixon in the editing room.

It was left to her to make sure that if the story of what happened at the Met leading to the death of Theo’s would not be told at its chronological place in the film, she doled out at the information intelligibly and at the proper emotional moments. “You want to parse out a little bit a time of what he remembers – and also what he’s allowing himself to remember,” Dixon explained. “And what he’s allowing other people in on the private memories that he has.”

The audience does not see the face of Theo’s mom until the end of The Goldfinch, which renders her more of an abstraction and less of a person. When I asked why the filmmakers made this decision, Dixon clarified that she did not want to put words in anyone else’s mouth. “He [Crowley] wanted Theo to always be searching,” Dixon stated, “and the last thing he saw was her walking away.” But, from her recollection of the post-production process, withholding her face represented a literal visualization of how the event emotionally stunted Theo.

“Theo, this event blocked him so much. It happens when he’s thirteen years old and affects him all the way through his twenties. I hate to get psychological, but this is the kind of thing that very much stunts you. It stunted him. There was so much a part of him that was still the thirteen-year-old kid. Until he can understand his part in the painting and in keeping it away from people, she is always going to be inaccessible. Once he has understood and said, ‘I would have given it back, I swear,’ then she makes herself known to him, and he can see her. We see her now for the first time.”

As for the explosion? The film shows it only whenever an older Boris (Aneurin Barnard) reveals to Theo that he has taken the titular painting, which Theo took with him from the rubble in the museum on that fateful day. The Goldfinch, of course, takes on a life of its own as an object into which Theo invests his grief, guilt and longing. Dixon explained their selection of this moment for the big reveal because it was a similarly cathartic emotional beat. “He’s held onto this symbol of his mother in the memory, and he realizes he hasn’t had it all along,” she said. “Then it all comes bubbling up to the surface.”

Delaying Boris’ Arrival and Juxtaposing the Boy with the Man

Another key change to the structure of Tartt’s story was waiting to introduce Theo’s childhood friend Boris (played at a younger age by Finn Wolfhard), the only saving grace of his time living in Las Vegas with his deadbeat gambling addict father (Luke Wilson). With the exception of flashbacks to the Met, the story proceeds in roughly chronological order following Theo’s entrance at the Barbours until his father, girlfriend Xandra (Sarah Paulson) in tow, comes to move him out west. Immediately following Theo’s arrival in Las Vegas, The Goldfinch jumps ahead to scenes of Ansel Elgort’s young adult Theo and not returning to fill in the adventures with Boris for quite some time.

In all fairness, Tartt’s novel makes many a surprising jump in time, too, with important character developments recounted in a casual bit of Theo’s narration. To some extent, the big leap captures some of the book’s whiplash. But Dixon chalks up this decision with the need for the film to juxtapose the two versions of Theo, something that’s much easier to do on film that is in written prose:

“Because Theo is thirteen years old for so much of the movie, and for obvious reasons we can’t see him grow up, he really does make a jump. There’s a lot of stuff that could have happened in all those years, we don’t see that jump. So for us as an audience to connect the two together – two different actors, same person – I found that the more we could juxtapose the boy with the man, the more we could emphasize with both facets of the self. And we started doing it a little bit, and we liked the kind of feeling it was giving us.”

Dixon said she discovered the moment at which the film pivots back to Vegas and shows the beginnings of Theo’s friendship with Boris in the editing room; it was different than the one originally written in the script. The jump comes after a series of scenes in which Theo appears well-adjusted to adult life, if still slightly stunted. He’s reconnected with the Barbours, especially the family’s aging matriarch (Nicole Kidman), after they suffered a tragedy of their own. He’s found satisfaction in employment with Hobie (Jeffrey Wright), a mentor and father figure with whom he connected after the blast. And yet … he’s still holding onto the Goldfinch painting. For Dixon, this presented the perfect moment to show how the childlike behavior reflects what happened during his time in Vegas:

“I said to John, ‘Hey, how about if we jump back to Vegas at this point where he’s getting the painting out of hiding and hugging the painting?’ That transition really, really locked down – especially for me – how much it was connected to his mother in his mind. Those two scenes were never meant to go together, and they did.”

She returned to this juxtaposition towards the end of the film with a key piece of voiceover explaining the history of the Goldfinch painting. This one, however, arose more organically out of the editing process. Dixon described how this cross-cut sequence in the Amsterdam hotel room and the Met came to be:

“I’m like, ‘What do I put with this footage?’ All I had was shootout stuff or depressed Theo in the hotel room, which I’d used. And I wanted to hold back the suicide stuff […] I was just in the editing room trying stuff, and I was like, ‘Hey, where’s the picture of the kid looking at the painting? How about if I put this here? This is something the mother would have taught him when he starts to talk about the history of the painting. We’ve never heard it, as an audience.’ So I dug back into dailies and put the boy here. Once we could juxtapose the boy with the man.”

The Third Act Was Almost One Night

Dixon and I mostly discussed what actually ended up in the theatrical cut of The Goldfinch, but she did divulge one key change that got nixed – she thinks (and I concur) for the better. Originally, everything from Theo taking the true object of his affections and fellow explosion survivor Pippa (Ashleigh Cummings) to the shootout over the painting in Amsterdam was scripted as taking place over one infinite night. It’s not even worth listing out everything that would entail; the list is simply too long.

“Because all the scenes are very deep and dense with information, metaphor and feeling, it’s like … I think we realized it was too much to put an audience through,” Dixon professed. “You sort of need a breather. And you need time for him to reflect on what has happened […] I was like, ‘John, we’ve got to break this night up, it’s just too much.’ So we did.”

There are many, many plot points that must occur for The Goldfinch to make sense. One of the film’s biggest achievements is that it manages to hit the majority of them without ever feeling too rushed. It does provide the characters and the audience ample space to process, reflect and appreciate. This process of choosing whether to move at a brisk clip or a languorous stroll presents a challenge for all filmmakers, though it’s made especially difficult when the studio has a runtime in mind. Dixon said her hope for the film was finding the places “where everyone is on a consensus of, ‘Can we spend a little bit more time here?’”

The Final Shot

Fans of Tartt’s novel will recall that the final pages of The Goldfinch offer little in the way of narrative closure, nor does she trouble the reader any additional plot details. Instead, the book closes with Theo offering reflective statements that read like a statement of purpose – and reveals his awareness of writing a book all along. The film adaptation provides a less overt conclusion as the filmmakers opt to close on a bittersweet note, depicting Theo and his mom in front of The Goldfinch hanging on the wall of the Met prior to the explosion. It’s bitter because we know what will happen soon yet sweet because Theo can see her face in his mind again and think about their connection rather than their estrangement.

“I wanted that little section to be all about the boy and the mom,” Dixon said when I asked her about how the film’s ending came to be. The final sequence contains a great deal of intercutting between the two versions of Theo, so she makes her hand known in it. The most frequent sight in the present-day imagery is Mrs. Barbour, who regards Theo like her own offspring after losing her teenage son Andy in a tragic boating accident. Just as she served a purpose for him following a tragic death, he returns the favor by fulfilling her filial needs.

The emotionally freighted montage lets the audience do most of the heavy lifting, explaining little and thus allowing them to project their own feelings onto it. Dixon, ever the generous interview subject, did divulge a little bit about the thought process leading into its assembly:

“What I was trying to set up is that he lost his mom but she, in her own way, has become sort of a surrogate. And they understand their relationship together. They need each other. But one of his memories he can’t shake is his mom walking away, and now we as an audience are left with his last memory being his mom holding him … but now he has Mrs. Barbour.

“I told John at one point, ‘It’s really unfortunate because this guy has never really grown up. When you lose a parent that early, you’re kind of a perpetual visitor until you make a home for yourself. He hasn’t grown up because he’s still living with Hobie! He hasn’t made a home for himself.’ At that point, I feel like he’s made a peace with what he’s done with this painting, what he remembers about his mom, and he’s putting them in places where they belong now and is able to grow up and understand the relationship and be more of an adult. He was stunted, you know? For me, it was like, his more recent last memory of his mother is a more loving one and not her leaving and him feeling guilty. It’s more about them being together. It’s really sad because you know what’s getting ready to happen.”

Whether these changes satisfy fans of the novel will likely be a textbook case of YMMV (“Your Mileage May Vary”). But for those folks, Tartt’s rich text still exists for revisiting and exploration. The work Dixon and the rest of the filmmaking team undertook to bring the book to life on screen reflects a different set of considerations, ones that – I’d argue – they managed to navigate fairly well.

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