When it was announced that Emma Donoghue’s best-selling 2010 novel Room would be adapted into a film by A24 Films and DirecTV, many literature lovers were skeptical about how it would work out. How could such a powerful story — based on an even more harrowing true-life tale — possibly scale into a motion picture? We’ve seen it, and it’s no surprise that Brie Larson has won an Oscar for her powerful and moving performance as Ma. The rest movie holds its own without losing the most integral parts of the novel.
Before comparing how the 2015 film Room stacks up to Donoghue’s story, it’s essential to understand a bit about real events from which it borrows. Room’s central conceit is loosely based on the life of Elisabeth Fritzl, an Austrian woman held captive for decades in a basement by her own father, Josef Fritzl. Elisabeth endured unimaginable emotional, physical, and sexual abuse — the latter resulting in the birth of seven children in the underground cellar. Upon Elisabeth’s escape from the home, her story lit up international news broadcasts, making her personal traumas public. This report, and those of other women held for years without respite by their kidnappers, allowed Donoghue to craft her incredibly perceptive plotline.
In both the novel and film, Donoghue’s focus is on showing how resilient children can be, and how a mother’s love endures through even the most devastating and trying of times. A young woman, Ma, is abducted at the age of 19 by Old Nick (who in this fictionalized version is not related to her). The novel begins 7 years after Ma’s abduction, when her son, Jack is 5 years old. Jack’s world is entirely confined within the garden shed that he and his mother live in, which Jack calls “Room.”
Lenny Abrahamson made many bold choices while directing the film adaptation. Because the book is told exclusively from the perspective of Jack, in the movie we get to actually see just how grungy and deplorable their ‘Room’ is, as well as how oblivious the youngster is to the ‘rules’ of the outside world. Of course, the characters don’t mention that the blood stain on the rug is where Ma gave birth to Jack, but the audience has no doubt about that fact as the film moves along. This type of visual storytelling is what we gain in exchange for losing some of the narrative details of the novel.
There are a few other significant alterations in the book to screen transition as well. For instance, Ma is 19 in the book when she’s abducted by Old Nick, but in the movie she’s a 17-year-old girl living with her parents. The portion of the movie where Ma and Jack plan and execute their escape is longer than in the novel, which details more confrontation between the duo and Old Nick. Another detail lost in translation is Ma giving birth to a stillborn girl before delivering Jack. In the movie, Jack is the only child Ma ever has.
Though these are key differences for anyone who was a fan of the novel, the film does a more than satisfying job of communicating the overall depth of emotion and conflict between each of the characters. Brie Larson takes on the role of Ma in the movie (and brought home the Oscar for Best Actress in A Leading role and Best Actress Golden Globe for her performance), and newcomer Jacob Tremblay shines in his performance as her son Jack. Josef Fritzl’s cruelty is embodied in the character of Old Nick, played by Sean Bridgers to perfection. While some books can be poorly translated to film, adaptation was handled with surprising poise and discretion.
Still, it’s very uncomfortable film to watch. Room shows us just how relative “reality” is, and how one’s mind may form to adapt to life within the walls of 10 x 10’ shed — an extension of the womb, really, wherein mother and child remain inextricably connected. Both Jack and Ma’s emergence into World is as shocking as a second birth.
Luckily the heart is a very resilient little muscle, and the mind a miracle of adaptation, imagination and desire. Even for the women upon whom this story is loosely based – kidnapping victims from all over the world – life continued; days unfolding into sunlight.
After gifting audiences with such an emotionally engaging story, both Emma Donoghue and Lenny Abrahamson deserve all of the accolades coming their way. Filled with a rare depth of passion, for a film set in such a small space, it has an immensely large heart.