Out Sept. 13, the new film The Goldfinch stars Ansel Elgort as Theo Decker, a young man who has spent his life trying to recover from a traumatic childhood event. When he was just 13, Theo’s mother was killed in a terrorist bombing at an art museum. Theo of course survived, and took from the scene a 17th century painting of a chained goldfinch by Rembrandt pupil Carel Fabritius — a painting that accompanies Theo throughout the rest of his life’s adventures. So is Theo from The Goldfinch a real person, or is he a fictional character?
The Goldfinch is based on the novel of the same name by author Donna Tartt, who doesn’t appear to have been influenced by an actual person when crafting her story. The Pulitzer Prize-winning author has kept her process pretty close to the vest, saying in an interview with The Chicago Tribune‘s Kevin Nance that her inspiration for The Goldfinch began with a mood. "The gestation of a novel is really a mysterious process, although with me story almost always is preceded by place, and with mood," Tartt said. "The mood itself will suggest a story: that was true of my first two novels and it’s true of this one, too. I began writing this book 20 years ago when I was in Amsterdam — some of the early parts of the book were written in Amsterdam as long ago as 1993. And then, I’ve lived in New York on and off since 1987. As far as I can tell, from looking back at old notebooks, the book really began with a dark Amsterdam mood, a dark New York mood … But it’s really impossible to say exactly what came first, as when I first started writing I didn’t actually know I was writing a novel. Many different elements combined unexpectedly in just the right way."
Though Theo does not appear to be based on a real person, there is at least one actual human who seems to have had an influence on The Goldfinch, and that’s Carel Fabritius. His painting, which is an actual work of art, is obviously at the center of the story. Not only that, but Fabritius himself was killed in an explosion — mirroring the death of Theo’s mother in The Goldfinch. Tartt was surely aware of this connection, and it’s possible that the artist’s death helped influence at least part of her story.
As for Elgort’s rendition, he found the role of Theo to be quite challenging due to the character’s drug addiction. "The guy is addicted to painkillers oxycontin, and he is traumatized by this terrorist attack he was in and his mother’s death," Elgort told Variety‘s Brent Lang. "When you act, it’s real. You get to experience whatever your characters are experiencing. In Goldfinch, I am experiencing the heaviness and weight of being Theo, and that’s a terrible thing. The next character I play is not going to be a drug addict. For sure."
Theo from The Goldfinch is not based on a real person, but the character should still feel plenty relatable thanks to Tartt’s stellar characterization, Elgort’s performance, and the real world influence of Carel Fabritius looming in the background.
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