‘The Goldfinch’: How is the movie different from Donna Tartt’s novel? (Spoilers!)

Spoiler alert! What follows discusses specific plot points from “The Goldfinch,” including a moment near the end of the movie. Stop reading now if you haven’t seen the film yet and don’t want to know.

Bringing a nearly 800-page novel like Donna Tartt’s “The Goldfinch” to the movie screen means changes will have to be made.

Even though director John Crowley’s drama runs a hefty 2 hours and 26 minutes, there are some differences in the movie (in theaters now). A passionate fan of the book, Crowley took great pains to remain faithful to the original Pulitzer Prize-winning material, even if he had to step away from Tartt’s linear narrative to make the film more cinematic.

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Seriously, don’t read any further unless you’re prepared to having things spoiled.

Theo (Oakes Fegley) and Hobie (Jeffrey Wright) have a moment. (Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES)

The filmmakers diverted from Donna Tartt’s description of Theo’s guardian Hobie

James “Hobie” Hobart, Theo’s devoted friend and eventual guardian, is described in their first meeting as resembling “antique photos of Irish poets and pugilists” with “his skin an unhealthy white.”

Crowley cast African-American “Westworld” star Jeffrey Wright to toil in the Manhattan antique shop as Hobie. Why? Crowley simply saw Wright as the loyal, incorruptible Hobie.

“There’s an inherent decency about Jeffrey that just comes through,” he says. “It felt like going against what was literally written on the page, but it felt very true to the spirit of what Donna wrote.”

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Aneurin Barnard (as Boris) and Ansel Elgort (Theo) are seeking a priceless painting in "The Goldfinch" (Photo: WARNER BROS. PICTURES)

Boris is a literal lifesaver in the end

The relationship between the Ukrainian-born Boris Pavlikovsky (played by Finn Wolfhard as a high schooler and Aneurin Barnard as an adult) and Theo (young Oakes Fegley and Elgort) is a model of true friendship enduring under unusual circumstances and a lot of drugs.

In the book, the guilt-ridden adult Boris tracks Theo down in New York City and confesses that he stole “The Goldfinch” (and replaced it with a school book), then lost the painting. In the movie, the two bump into each other at a Russian bar in New York by coincidence and he confesses.

A bigger change comes after Theo waits for Boris for weeks in an Amsterdam hotel after their botched attempt to take the painting back from local criminals. In the book, the depressed Theo ultimately decides to turn himself in to Dutch police for his crimes when Boris shows up and stops him. In the movie, Theo goes through with a suicide attempt, and Boris bursts through the hotel door to rescue his overdosing friend.

Crowley says much of the drama in the final act is happening offstage as Theo waits helplessly in the hotel. So Boris’ heroic return served as a screen climax while emphasizing the impact Boris had on Theo.

“Boris entering back into Theo’s life at the end really does save Theo’s life,” Crowley says. “So it felt like a very true version of the events and allowing Boris to be a little more proactive. It felt like a truthful liberty to take for the drama and seeing the relationship between Boris and Theo through.”

Author Donna Tartt stayed out of "The Goldfinch" movie-making process. (Photo: BEOWULF SHEEHAN)

So how did the author feel about the changes and the movie? No one knows

She hasn’t said a word publicly about the movie and stayed entirely out of the filmmaking. No cameo, no interviews, no premiere red carpet.

Before he was hired, Crowley traveled to North Carolina with producer Nina Jacobson to meet with Tartt over lunch. They talked about the existing script and Crowley’s vision for the film, while Tartt kept secretive about her next writing project. 

“So I guess I got the thumbs-up from her since it was announced I was hired the next day,” Crowley says. “But that was the only contact I had with her from there on. We were trusted to get on and make the film.”

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