I really enjoyed the original novel and was very worried about how it would be translated to the screen.
Author Emma Donoghue (who also wrote the screenplay for the film adaptation) was inspired to write the novel after reading about the terrifying Fritzl case and imaging what it would have been like for children to have to grow up buried in a cellar and how their world would have been shaped – and the shock they must have faced when they finally emerged from their captivity/
She succeeded in creating that image with the five-year old Jack, a child who was born in a cell after his Ma (as he calls his mother) was kidnapped, raped, and imprisoned by a man named “Old Nick.” The novel is told from Jack’s perspective, as he explains the world as he understands it, in which only “room” exist and everything he sees on TV takes place on another planet. He speaks with odd compound words and refers to everything in his and Ma’s cell as though it has a proper name. I’d call it Hemingwayesque, but I doubt Hemingway ever used the phrase “SillyPenis” as Jack does in the novel. Above all, there’s real terror in Jack as he realizes that he’ll have to leave Room and adjust to the outside world.
The novel works because it’s about Jack and his experiences. Ma and other characters are presences in his world. We learn about them, but he never truly understand them. It puts the reader in Jack’s position, which makes the situation far more tragic.
But that approach would be impossible to translate into film. Yes, it would be possible to recreate the events that happen in the novel quite easily – which Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson does without deviating far from the source material. But a film is implicitly told in the third person, which would betray the point of Room. If we can’t truly get inside Jack’s head, then what are we left with?
Luckily, the film solved this dilemma beautifully. The film’s emotional center is not Jack (Jacob Tremblay) but Ma (Brie Larson). In the novel, Ma was a presence that Jack loves but couldn’t understand. In the film adaptation, we finally understand Ma’s struggle as she has to cope with what’s happening to her and how she can still find a way to care for Jack.
Brie Larson plays Ma as completely worn out. There is no glamour in Larson’s appearance and she’s frequently yelling at Jack as she’s trying to get him to understand how the world really is. All of this was implied in the novel, but it was above Jack’s understanding. Ma looks practically like a zombie, who is just going through the motions in Room because she knows that’s what her child expects. After her situation changes, can she really find it in her to still care for Jack in the same way? There were times I began to doubt it, particularly after she started screaming at her own mother (Joan Allen) and came close to blaming her for her capture.
Normally this would come across as melodrama, but it works because there’s a natural build up to it. Larson never plays Ma as depressed or having nervous breakdown. It’s only in private moments where her mask slips away. The entire film is like that, where we’re shown Ma tearing up as she looks at her old high school year book photos.
There are moments we hear Jack’s narration from the book, as he laments the hurry that everyone seems to be in now that time is spread a lot thinner than it was outside Room. Those scenes have a Terence Malick feel, as we hear Jack philosophizing while we see a montage of him playing in his new home. He’s obviously far more able to adjust to his new environment than Ma is, which introduces some new elements to the work. Where most adaptations dilute the point of the original work, Room expands it with new comments on childhood, motherhood, and the effects both have on the world.
Room the movie does what Room the book did so well – it takes us on a convincing emotional journey with people trapped in a situation almost beyond comprehending. It’s a soul-searing film that lingers with you long after the lights have gone back up. After reading the novel, my biggest question to myself was, “what would I have done in that situation?” After seeing the film, I think my question is the far more appropriate, “