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The Untold Truth Of The Goldfinch

Some books are best sellers, and more often than not, those titles are decades-spanning sagas, emotionally charged thrillers, or coming-of-age tales. Other books are critical darlings, novels of demonstrable literary merit than win major writing awards and earn a permanent place in both libraries and the Western literature canon because they're "great books." Few books are popular with both average readers and the literary elite, but The Goldfinch is that rare title. Donna Tartt's 784-page opus spent more than eight months on the New York Times best sellers list and won both the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction and the Andrew Carnegie Medal for Excellence in Fiction in 2014 (among other prizes). 

So what is The Goldfinch about? Well, it's the story of Theo, a 13-year-old boy who survives a terrorist attack at the New York museum that claims his mother's life, but which leaves him in possession of Carel Fabritius' 17th-century painting The Goldfinch. Theo keeps that a secret as he matures into adulthood under the tutelage of family friends in Manhattan and his degenerate father in Las Vegas. In other words, the story is very cinematic, and the film version stars Ansel Elgort, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, and Jeffrey Wright. Here's everything you need to know about The Goldfinch.

The author isn't happy

The Goldfinch got Donna Tartt paid. Based on the performance of her previous work and the commercial potential for the novel, it's said she landed an advance of more than $1 million from publisher Little, Brown and Company. That's a mere pittance compared to the $3 million that Tartt's agent, Amanda "Binky" Urban, secured for the movie adaptation rights, according to Page Six. (For comparison, J.K. Rowling received just $2 million for the film rights to the first four Harry Potter books.) Despite the windfall, Tartt was displeased ... and she fired Urban, her representative of more than 30 years. 

A source told Page Six that Tartt "was unhappy with the deal made for the movie." Reportedly, Tartt had wanted at least a chance to write the screenplay and to receive a producer credit on the film. Urban couldn't secure those perks, and so Tartt, irked that she wound up zero creative control over a film based on her book, dismissed her. Ouch.

The Goldfinch movie was almost doomed

There are so many formats for a literary adaptation. For example, producers can make a single book into a TV series (like HBO's The Leftovers), a miniseries (Good Omens), a single movie (Crazy Rich Asians), or even a series of films (The Hobbit). The watch-and-listen version of The Goldfinch wound up as one long (2 hours, 29 minutes) movie, but seeing as how its source novel runs nearly 800 pages, a lot of material got excised. Of course, that's not how Goldfinch author Donna Tartt wanted things to go. Shortly after the book's release in 2013, Tartt's representatives presented an adaptation to various Hollywood entities — specifically, a TV miniseries version.

It would seem that no studio or network wanted to commit to an hours-long TV version of The Goldfinch because it never came together. Perhaps it reflects a reluctance about turning Tartt's books into screen projects because it previously hasn't gone well. In 1992, Warner Bros. bought the rights to Tartt's The Secret History before it was even published, and acclaimed writers Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne were enlisted for the screenplay. Six years later, it still hadn't gotten off the ground, and when supervising producer Alan Pakula died, so did the movie. A 2002 attempt by Gwyneth Paltrow fell apart, too. In other words, it's kind of a miracle that we're actually getting a Tartt adaptation at all.

What's so important about a goldfinch?

Wherever The Goldfinch takes Theodore Decker — such as the posh Manhattan home of the Barbour family, the antiques workshop of his friend Hobie, or the sprawling exurbs outside Las Vegas — so goes The Goldfinch, the 1654 painting by Dutch artist Carel Fabritius that young Theodore swiped from the wreckage of a deadly bombing in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. More than just a simple painting of a small bird, or an object to propel the plot, the artwork offers some striking narrative parallels.

Similar to how Theo learns artistic skills in the workplace of the masterful Hobie, Fabritius trained in the studio of Dutch master artist Rembrandt van Rijn. Like Theo, Fabritius moved around a bit, ultimately settling in the town of Delft. And paralleling the tragic, violent, and far-too-early death of Theo's mother in that museum, Fabritius died at the age of 32, a casualty of an explosion in a gunpowder warehouse near his home.

Brett Ratner had to fly

Either as a director or producer or both, Brett Ratner is responsible for some of the biggest hits of the late 1990s and 2000s. For example, he directed all three Rush Hour movies, X-Men: The Last Stand, and Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson's Hercules, while he produced Code Name: The Cleaner, the Horrible Bosses films, and Skyline. Clearly, Ratner's wheelhouse contains bombastic action movies, broad comedies, and bombastic and broad action comedies. But people are complicated, and Ratner was all set to help bring The Goldfinch to the big screen as a producer on the project for Warner Bros., via his RatPac Entertainment banner. 

But then the "Me Too" and "Time's Up" movements picked up steam in late 2017, and six women came forward with allegations of sexual harassment and misconduct against Ratner. "In light of the allegations being made," Ratner said in a statement (via The Hollywood Reporter), "I am choosing to personally step away from all Warner Bros.-related activities." Not to be outdone, about an hour after Ratner's statement hit the media, Warner Bros. fired Ratner from The Goldfinch.

The new Nicole Kidman is the old Nicole Kidman

The novel version of The Goldfinch unfolds over more than a decade, as main character Theodore Decker ages from his early teens to his 20s. To account for that wide range, filmmakers cast two different actors in the lead role. Oakes Fegley (best known for the 2016 remake of Pete's Dragon) plays young Theodore, while Baby Driver and The Fault in Our Stars star Angel Elgort will tag in and play the character in his older years. Similarly, Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) will play the teen version of Theo's best friend, Boris, while Aneurin Barnard will portray the character as a young adult. 

Filmmakers took a different approach with the characters who are adults for the entirety of The Goldfinch. Jeffrey Wright portrays Hobie, an antique furniture restorer and Theo's mentor, from old age to older age, while Nicole Kidman earns top billing for her portrayal of Mrs. Barbour, the small but pivotal role of the icy, troubled family friend who takes in Theo immediately after the death of his mother. The film's makeup crew engaged the help of elaborate, identity-obscuring prosthetics to age up Kidman.

The Goldfinch, starring Han Solo or the guy from One Direction

If The Goldfinch filmmakers wanted to be extremely faithful to the novel, they would've cast Daniel Radcliffe as the older Theodore Decker. Throughout the book, he wears thick glasses, prompting his friend Boris to nickname him "Potter" (as in Harry Potter). But the man who played "the boy who lived" was not meant for this book adaptation, as Ansel Elgort won the coveted role instead. But by no means was it a cakewalk for the young actor. According to Justin Kroll of Variety, director John Crowley met with multiple actors over the course of two months before he decided to offer the part to Elgort in the fall of 2017. Kroll later revealed on Twitter some of the guys that the Baby Driver actor beat out for the challenging role. "Other names in the mix," according to Kroll, included English actor Callum Turner, One Direction singer Harry Styles, and Alden Ehrenreich (before he broke out with his starring role in Solo: A Star Wars Story).

A lot of major actors turned down roles

While several up-and-coming stars vied for the role of Theodore Decker, The Goldfinch's filmmakers had a much harder time getting big name actors to commit to some of the film's other major parts. While the film boasts one Academy Award winner in Nicole Kidman, it could've had even more, had Kidman's The Hours co-star Julianne Moore not turned down the fleeting, ghost-like role of Theo's late mother, Audrey Decker. (Variety reported that producers and the actress couldn't agree on a deal.)

Jeffrey Wright signed on to play Hobie, the quiet antiques restorer who teaches Theo life skills and serves as a father figure to the flailing young man. He's an acclaimed actor, but Wright probably isn't as well-known as the other stars who were offered the role first. Warner Bros. approached the appropriately brooding Liam Neeson, but that ultimately didn't work out, and neither did the studio's courting of Voldemort himself, Ralph Fiennes.

Finn Wolfhard worked hard for his spot in The Goldfinch

One of the more notable names in the cast — particularly for younger moviegoers — is Finn Wolfhard. Best known for his role as Mike Wheeler on the enormously popular Netflix series Stranger Things, The Goldfinch marks the actor's second major film role, following his work as Richie Tozier in It. (We're not counting Dog Days.) In this non-scary literary adaptation, Wolfhard portrays the younger version of Boris, an independent teenager (and son of an abusive alcoholic) who befriends Theo Decker upon the latter's move to Las Vegas. 

Also, Boris is Russian, but Wolfhard is not. (He's from Canada.) For that reason and others, Wolfhard didn't immediately emerge as a candidate for the role. "I love Stranger Things. But Finn wasn't our first choice," director John Crowley told Empire. "My first instinct was to reach out to young Russian theater groups and immigrant theater groups in New York. We met a bunch of authentic young Russian kids." But Wolfhard out-auditioned all of them. That's because he did his homework, arriving on set with what Crowley called "the perfect accent" ready to go.