For Brad Simpson, who produced The Goldfinch with his Color Force partner, Nina Jacobson, Donna Tartt’s best-selling novel, which won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction, and spent more than 30 weeks on The New York Times Best Sellers list, it had everything producers look for in a book: “A page-turner with a deeply emotional narrative,” but that would be a challenge to condense more than 700 pages of storytelling into an approximately two-hour movie.
The last time 13-year-old Theo Decker saw his mother, she was gliding away from him into another gallery of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Seconds later, a terrorist bomb exploded destroying priceless pieces of art…and shattering Theo’s life forever.
Theo comes to in a gray moonscape of choking dust, debris and death. And there, in the rubble, is the painting—his mom’s favorite, the one she had pointed out to him only moments before: Carel Fabritius’s The Goldfinch. With his dying breath, an elderly gentleman pleads with the young boy to “take it” and, still reeling and in shock, Theo tucks the priceless artwork into his bag and leaves the museum—a life-changing action that will have far-reaching repercussions.
“At the beginning, you have this young boy who loses his mother in a sudden and stunning manner and then spends the rest of his life seeking some human connection,: says Simpson. “But every time Theo thinks he’s found it, he’s ripped away, so he clutches onto this one object, the painting, as a substitute for the world that’s been taken away. That unrelenting sensation of loss and the search for wholeness is one of the story’s central themes. For Theo, The Goldfinch is not just a painting.”
Simpson realised that required an extraordinary screenwriter writer, and approached Peter Straughan to tackle the daunting task of the adaptation.
“Straughan is one of the most respected screenwriters in Hollywood who has successfully adapted rich literary works, from ‘Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy’ to ‘Wolf Hall’, says Simpson. “From the beginning, he had the notion that the only way to tell this story was to essentially fracture it and then put it back together in a non-linear way. When I read Peter’s screenplay, I was amazed by how intricate it was—how each little piece relied on the others in conjuring the totality of the tale. Peter truly achieved something special.”
Straughan earned an Academy Award nomination and won a BAFTA Award for his screenplay for the 2011 dramatic thriller Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, based on the book by John le Carré (which he co-wrote with his late wife, Bridget O’Connor), and more recently received Emmy and Writers Guild of Great Britain Award nominations for his work on the Masterpiece Theatre miniseries Wolf Hall, an adaptation of the Hilary Mantel book.
Director John Crowley counts himself among the novel’s biggest fans. “I am one of the many millions who adore that book,” he states. “I read it when it first came out and thought it contained a remarkable mix of elements. It was an interesting way of looking at grief and shame—the way this child gets stuck at the point in his life when he lost his mother and how his dilemma only gets deeper and more complicated as he grows into an adult.
“I found it to be a very vivid, extremely memorable and affecting reading experience,” he continues. “That’s critical when you turn to making a book into a film, because it’s the thing you want to hold on to and what you keep going back to—that first feeling you had as a reader.”
Crowley agrees with Straughan’s adaptation, noting, “In letting go of the linear structure and moving back and forth between the two time periods in Theo’s life, Peter gave us a cinematic way in. As we cut between the past and the present, hopefully you get the sense that this young man’s past sits on his shoulders. It’s never gone.”
Simpson and Jacobson had begun developing The Goldfinch shortly after Crowley’s acclaimed romantic drama Brooklyn was released. “‘Brooklyn’ was such a beautiful movie, a wonderful book adaptation that was loved by so many people,” says Simpson. “We had a couple of great meetings with John, and he spoke from a place of character and emotion and an understanding of how each small detail in the book had great meaning in terms of the characters. We knew he was the right person to continue the journey of bringing ‘The Goldfinch’ to the screen.”
Behind the camera of Goldfinch, Crowley had the benefit of teaming with some of the most experienced artisans and craftspeople in cinema, including legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, production designer K.K. Barrett, editor Kelley Dixon, costume designer Kasia Walicka Maimone and composer Trevor Gureckis.
The director states, “What I find most exciting about the process of making a film is finding genuine collaborators who will take what you put on the table and challenge it or turn it on its head and come back with something 10 times bigger and better. It was a gift to work with artists of their caliber to realize the breadth of the canvas of this story.”
When principal photography wrapped, Crowley completed “The Goldfinch” in post, in collaboration with editor Kelley Dixon and composer Trevor Gureckis.
The director remarks, “With the score, I think we’re lucky to witness the arrival of a major new musical voice in Trevor. As an audition piece, he wrote 12 minutes of music for the film, fully mindful that he might not get the job. But he won it…and then some.”
In composing the score, Gureckis says, “I wanted to create a musical tapestry of modern electronics blended with modern orchestra that enhances the great work that’s already there in the scenes. I was trying to capture what’s happening inside the characters.”
He goes on to say that the central theme of the score was inspired by Theo’s journey “and how he is always reaching for something. In the same way, the score is always reaching for a resolution—the whole framework of the composition is set up around one chord that is never resolved until one climactic moment.”
“Trevor created a musical expression of an idea that Roger and I had come up with as a means of dealing with Theo’s relationship to his memory of his mother in the Met,” Crowley expands. “He translated that into a repeated musical phrase that would always exit on a note that was not flourishing…that would leave tension in its wake. And then when you see young Theo and his mother, and you hear her speak for the first time and see her face what Trevor was able to do was to sort of let the music take flight.”
The director reflects, “It’s an acknowledgement of what Theo’s mother had given him before that awful day—the terrible event, which cannot be changed…which is irredeemable. She gave him an appreciation of beauty and of the way in which beautiful objects can weave their way into your life and can become the thing that actually binds people together, in a very direct way, across time. That is something that speaks to an essential humanity and I think it’s a profoundly important message.”