Review by Beth Kelly
In 2010, Emma Donoghue’s novel Room set the literary world ablaze. Quickly shortlisted onto several awards lists – including the Man Booker Prize – it was also included as one of the New York Times’ top six fiction books for the year.
Partially inspired by the kidnapping case of Elisabeth Fritzl and the circumstances surrounding her escape, Room captivated millions of readers with its courageous message of resilience and hope. Now in the news for a second time, the story has made the successful leap from the page to the screen.
Charged with the task of tailoring the screenplay herself, Donoghue worked closely with director Lenny Abrahamson to maintain the emotional tenor of novel. The film, starring Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, has already received critical praise from festival critics – as well as purported Oscar buzz.
Some aspects of the novel were, by necessity, lost in translation. Ma is now two years younger, making her seventeen instead of nineteen years old when she was kidnapped and placed in captivity, allowing us to see her as a slightly more vulnerable figure. Room the book relies on the narration of five-year-old Jack, played by Tremblay, as the reader’s entrance to their world. Through his eyes, an outsider is slowly introduced to the eleven-square-foot world of “Room.” Room the movie relies on camera angles and set design to present the cramped compartment that holds Jack’s universe, revealing to viewers in a twist the profundity of their situation.
Much is asked of Tremblay, as his character’s perspective is still the driving force of the film. We see through his eyes, with sparse narration in key scenes, how it feels to have your world crack open at the seams. Larsen’s Ma also captures the reality of their captivity with remarkable depth, and the chemistry between her and Tremblay is truly striking. While lacking some of the nuance of the book – the absence of breastfeeding between Ma and Jack as a physical bond, for example – the strength of the actors’ performances enables the story to be successfully condensed.
There are several key alterations that stand out: in addition to the aforementioned choice to remove breastfeeding scenes, Ma is now an only child, and the adventure that Jack has with his uncle Paul and Paul’s family is now gone. While done in the name of cleaner storytelling and run time, this does remove an important aspect of comparison: how a child brought up with Jack’s unique experiences compares to a more “normal” family unit and a child of similar age. But this streamlining does focus more on Jack and Ma’s experiences, and Larson’s range as an actress is allowed to shine through.
Without the direct text of the novel to say what Jack is thinking, the audience can project their own thoughts onto Tremblay and Larson’s own expressive faces. In some ways, this enables the audience to form an even deeper bond with the characters. Tremblay’s wide-eyed fascination in response to the outside world in particular is both heart breaking and a joy to behold.
Produced by A24 Films and DirecTV, Room the film reveals much more than the horrors of kidnapping at abuse. Never saccharine or overwrought in its approach, it makes a concerted effort to show viewers that the limits of the physical realm are inconsequential when our imaginations are allowed to soar.