A book like “The Goldfinch” is something to wallow in. Dickensian in heft, length, characters, and readability, Donna Tartt’s 2014 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the kind of experience that eats up a month or three of your life. A movie, by contrast, builds a world and guides us through it in two hours; it needs entirely different bones. “The Goldfinch,” John Crowley’s film adaptation of Tartt’s novel, lands unsatisfyingly in the middle.
It’s prestige work, elegantly shot by the great Roger Deakins and sumptuously scored by Trevor Gureckis, much of it unfolding in richly appointed Park Avenue surroundings and along the canals of Amsterdam. It’s well acted, absolutely watchable, and instantly forgettable. If you haven’t read the book it will remain a distant affair, and if you have read the book it will be a souvenir.
One stumbling block is that the movie seems to have two heroes, where the book has one. The life and times of Theodore Decker is narrated by the older Theo, looking back on his younger self. Crowley obviously has to cast separate actors: Ansel Elgort (“Baby Driver”) as the adult version, a smoothly confident young dealer in antique furniture, and the gifted Oakes Fegley (“Pete’s Dragon,” “Wonderstruck”) as 12-year-old Theo, reeling in the aftermath of a museum bombing that killed his mother and left him somehow alive.
Theo has come out of the disaster with a ring given to him by a dying man and a small oil painting, “The Goldfinch,” painted by the Dutch master Carel Fabritius in 1654 before he himself was killed in an explosion. To the world, it’s a theft; for Theo, it’s a talisman of trauma.
Tartt’s novel is loaded with deftly drawn characters, many of them members of the Barbour family, the wealthy Manhattan clan that takes Theo in after the bombing. Mrs. Barbour (Nicole Kidman) is a gentle mother figure; the father (Boyd Gaines), a WASP blowhard. Theo’s friend Andy (Ryan Foust) is a much-bullied brainiac, and there’s a snippy sister, Kitsey (Willa Fitzgerald), who will figure later in the proceedings — another echo of Dickens and of latter-day acolytes like John Irving.
The mysterious ring, meanwhile, leads Theo to a Greenwich Village antique shop run by the sage James “Hobie” Hobart (Jeffrey Wright), whose upper floors are home to Pippa (Aimee Laurence), another survivor of the bombing. So Theo has a home, a mentor, and a crush; all seems well.
His upper-class idyll is interrupted, however, by the reappearance of Theo’s father, Larry (Luke Wilson), a rambling, gambling ne’er-do-well with a chippie girlfriend (Sarah Paulson, snapping her gum like a 1930s Warner Brothers heroine) and a home on a dead end desert road in Las Vegas. There Theo befriends a Russian classmate, Boris (Finn Wolfhard of “Stranger Things”), and learns the pleasures of recreational drugs.
If this sounds schematic, a stone skipping across the waters of plot, that’s how it feels in the playing. “The Goldfinch” is a series of visual re-creations of events whose emotional and even physical interiors were explored in far greater detail in the book. The characters shuttle by as if on a revolving stage, and only those performers with genuine presence — Kidman and Wolfhard among them; the actors playing the two Theos less so — truly punch through the caul of dutiful intentions.
“The Goldfinch” isn’t great literature but it is a good read. By breaking up the chronology and yanking the audience back and forth between Theo’s fraught youth and crisis-ridden present, though, the film prevents an audience from gaining emotional traction. This is a classic example of the way popular novels have always been turned into DOA movies, with tasteful production values, earnest acting, and a patina of literary respect that subordinates the themes while remaining at odds with what makes a movie work as a movie. Crowley has given us an expertly designed bookmark that mostly makes you want to get back to the book.
Directed by John Crowley. Written by Peter Straughan, based on the novel by Donna Tartt. Starring Ansel Elgort, Oakes Fegley, Nicole Kidman, Luke Wilson, Finn Wolfhard, Jeffrey Wright. At Boston-area theaters. 149 minutes. R (drug use and language).
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.