I don’t like it when books I love are turned into movies. I’m a teenager at heart, which means I’m ferociously protective of the images and moods I conjure up while reading a book. I don’t like that imaged sullied by some development executive at Dreamworks trying to revive Katherine Heigel’s career. But for reasons I haven’t quite figured out, my affection for Donna Tartt’s work demands a cinematic treatment. It could simply be that Tarrt writes boys and men so well. And I like watching mischievous boys and craggy men acting on screen.
Or it could be for the very reason a friend of mine dislikes Tartt: “Her books read to me like a collection signals instead of characters,” he said to me when we nearly annulled our friendship over Tartt. “She writes about people as figures, as, like, a 14-year-old would see them—for example in The Secret History, the girl classicist is too lazy to do dishes but her dirty teacups symbolize that she is too purely intellectual to care about such mundane things, and this is supposed to make her more beautiful. Tartt’s just generally more interested in what a description means about class and status and intellect than in creating human characters.”
My friend is not entirely wrong, but this is part of what I love about Tartt’s characters: their little symbols, props, and bric-a-brac as extensions of their personalities. She’s like a magpie of revealing clutter. (And by the by, there is a long tradition of this sort of thing, from Ms. Havisham’s giant velvet couch to Piggy’s glasses.)
And the clutter is so precise. Take Tartt’s description of Boris—the boozey, existential, immigrant high school student adrift in a giant Las Vegas. The first time we see Boris he’s wearing “jungle boots and bizarre old fatigues with the knees busted out” and “a black t-shirt with a snowboarding logo, Never Summer in white gothic letters.” These descriptions enhance the verisimilitude of Tartt’s characters for me because, honestly, as shallow as this sounds, the first thing I look at when I meet someone is their shoes.
Awash in all of these evocative visual cues, I found myself, from the first pages of Tartt’s The Goldfinch, casting the movie version. I needed large, hypnotic screen personalities to go with the richness of Tartt’s descriptions. So here’s what I’ve come up with:
Boris: I instantly saw Adam Driver as Boris, Theodore Decker’s hedonistic Ukrainian sidekick with the “stringy black hair” and voracious personality. Driver’s wide set almond eyes, slumpy but vaguely muscular figure (peasant chic), rumpledness, Asiatic cheek bones, and overall aura of a bladder infection waiting to happen seems like a perfect fit for Boris. “There was somehow no cleaning him up,” Tartt writes in her description of the Ukrainian hustler that could also double for a characterization of Driver. “His smudged eyes made him look stormy and disreputable, and though his hair wasn’t technically dirty it gave the impression dirtiness.” Alternate: Ezra Miller.
Theo’s mother: You can’t go too glamorous or too homely for the Midwestern-waitress-turned-Manhattanite-art-director who is gracious with doormen and is a lover of the Dutch masters. I see Julianne Nicholson, you may know her from Masters of Sex or Boardwalk Empire (the saucy lady Federal Attorney!). She has the classic beautiful actress features—big light eyes, immaculate and broad forehead, hair the color of translucent brown English Breakfast tea, and she’s thin to the point of being tawny. But she also has a splotches of tiny auburn freckles across her entire face which make her crows feet and laugh lines look a little tougher, a little deeper. Her weak chin makes her just a tad ugly. Most important: She doesn’t have her teeth fixed and blanched to that spooky blue hue that so many other actresses have.
Larry Decker (Theo’s dad): Arguably the most important role in my Goldfinch Mind Movie. This is the money part, the handsome actor turned degenerate gambler. This is a role for a character actor and a character actor only: It is serious Circle in the Square, capital-A, ACH-TING territory. He has to be charismatic enough to hook Theo’s loft mom, but also scummy enough to try to swindle his own son.
The crucial scene is when Larry tries to cajole Theo into having his inheritance wired over so Larry can “invest” in a “restaurant.” After Theo asks a few questions, Larry explodes and smashes Theo across the face. This is one of the most shocking parts of the book because up until this spasm of violence, Larry seems, at worst, only benignly neglectful to his son.
He can’t just be a brute, because true addicts, those who have lived long enough to get people to trust them and sustain their habits, are likeable. My first pick is Bryan Cranston because he’s so magnetic but has such a great villain turn when his voice gets low and he barks. But maybe Cranston doing Fucked-Up Dad is too much of a Walter White revival.
The alternates: Michael Shannon, John C. Riley, James Woods, and a personal favorite Will Patton. If you are book nerd and can put your snobbishness aside to dip into the philistine tide of audiobooks LIKE I HAVE you will find that Will Patton is an artistic vessel sent by the Literary Gods. He is the master reader of Denis Johnson and James Lee Burke novels; he is at the apex of theater and literature.
Xandra: Who, I ask, who has the raspy, Oxy-slur, and crinkly eyes necessary to play poor burnt out Xandra? Her favorite thing to say is a mocking “apparently.” There are two choices, as I see them: Connie Britton or Charisma Carpenter—whoever looks most natural with a butterfly tattooed on her lower back.
Pippa: This has to be an unknown. I will never believe Chloe Morentz or Jennifer Lawrence sucking on a morphine lollipop reliving her days as a flute a prodigy. I might accept Jenna Malone because I saw her in a Bastard out of Carolina adaptation on Lifetime when I was 12, and she will always hold a special place in my stormy heart.
Hobie: This is the only part where I will accept a British actor (too often we overlook glorious but lesser-known American theater actors and throw in some British varsity player trying to break out of the BBC ghetto for Dignified Gentleman roles . This is unacceptable. Movies are like the only thing America makes anymore and I refuse to continue to subcontract our Oscar worthy roles to guys who graduated from Oxford! USA! USA!) simply because there are so few kindly, sophisticated, Dickensian patricians such as Hobie. I cast Jim Broadbent (from Hogwarts) with Albert Finney as an alternate.
Theo: I cannot picture our main character. I had the same problem with Richard in Tartt’s The Secret History. Part of what makes Tartt’s mystery so delectable (intriguing enough to get you through 500 plus pages) is how observant we believe her narrators, like Theo and Richard, to be. Her main characters have a sealed-in hermetic quality to their ponderous selves, and we can’t quite see their outsides. Like Orwell’s description of Henry Miller’s protagonist in the Tropic of Cancer, Theo is very much “inside the whale,” cocooned in the blubber of his own head. So, fuck it, I have no idea—throw Elijah Wood in there!
Natasha Vargas-Cooper is a journalist living in Los Angeles.