Room: From Book to Film

Spoiler Alert: This review involves spoilers.

Is the book always better than its movie adaptation? Again I’d say, they are two different kinds of medium and art form, hence, hard to compare. But some just want a simple answer. So here it is, no. The book is not always better, and Room is a case in point.

Room Movie Poster (1)

Not that I’m putting down this 2010 Booker Prize shortlisted novel by Emma Donoghue, or that I lack the empathy to appreciate the scenario: A teenager kidnapped and locked in a garden shed, visited by her captor on a regular basis for his pleasure, two years later resulting in the birth of a baby boy whom she raised right there in the room until he is five years old. A sad and tormenting premise, albeit not totally implausible when there was a similar real life case just discovered not long before Donoghue wrote her book, and sadly, new ones coming out after as well.

I read the book upon its publication in 2010. Maybe it was my own intuitive reaction against the hype around it, I found reading three hundred some pages of juvenile talk, all from the point of view of a 5 year-old was a bit testing, at times even annoying. But the movie has offered me an alternative frame of looking at the story, and its author.

There are many positive ingredients in this affective and powerful adaptation. First is Donoghue. Writing the screenplay herself, the author expands our view from 5-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay) to include his Ma (Brie Larson), by so doing, raising our empathy for the captive, who has to appease her captor (Sean Bridgers) whom they call Old Nick, in order to stay alive and protect her young son.

A torturous line to tread, but Ma (her real name is Joy) has done it by turning the whole ordeal into a pleasant environment, giving Jack as normal a childhood as possible under such restraints. Old Nick brings them supplies when he comes in at night. That’s when Jack has to hide in the closet until Old Nick leaves. During daytime, Jack plays, exercises, and reads, even bakes a cake together with Ma for his birthday. The calm, playful scenario reminds me of the Holocaust movie Life Is Beautiful (1997) where the father turns a Nazi concentration camp ordeal into a game for his young son to shield him from the horrors of reality.

What is real, what is not? What is captivity, what is freedom? Jack learns that he and Ma are real, people in the TV are not. Room is all there is. The concept of himself being a captive has never enters his mind. Jack accepts all these until one day Ma knows that she cannot keep him in the shed anymore. Keeping her son safe from Old Nick’s hands becomes the prime motive for her to think of an escape plan.

I much appreciate director Lenny Abrahamson’s handling of the story: he chose not to exploit the crimes of Old Nick’s but to exalt the bond between Jack and Ma. The love between a mother and her child deflects all horrors of human depravity. Further, Ma’s nurturing helps Jack interpret his world and find beauty in it, from a confining shed to the outside world in the second part of the movie.

To counteract the argument that a movie leaves nothing to the imagination as it shows the visualized image of the literary, again, it depends on the handling by the director. Here in Room, some key issues are left to the audience’s own private thoughts. So if you are concerned about the movie being too graphic in its dealing with the crimes mentioned in the book, fear not, albeit I must say there are tense sequences for dramatic effects.

Donoghue has also structured the movie well, the first hour in the room, the next in the wider world, for we all need the balance; we all want to see Jack and Ma free. The contrast of the two worlds is mesmerizing to Jack. To Ma, however, the situation is much more complicated. The readjustment, the ‘what-if’s’, the ‘why didn’t you…” callously posed by the media are the slings and arrows hurled at her when she is interviewed, prompting her, and us the audience to ponder “What makes a parent? A good parent?”

Joy’s own mother Nancy is played by Joan Allen, in one of her most affable roles. Her acceptance and warm welcome helps Jack feel he belongs. In contrast, William Macy, her ex-husband Robert, sees only the criminal when he looks at the child. Leo (Tom McCamus), who lives with Nancy, observes from the sideline and helps in his own subtle way.

Another element I must mention is the music. I have not seen the films which Irish composer Stephen Rennicks had scored previous to Room. So for this first time hearing his work, I was deeply moved. The music augments the suspense and cues in the warmth, an essential ingredient to bring out the cinematic effects. As the film ends, I welcome it like a cathartic wash sweeping away the ugliness, leading Ma and Jack to embrace a fresh new beginning.

Shot in Toronto, the movie had captured the hearts of audiences in various film festivals and is the winner of Grolsch People’s Choice Award at TIFF15. Come this Awards Season, my prediction (and hope) is that it will gather nominations for screenplay, directing, music, actress, and for 8 year-old Jacob Tremblay.

~ ~ ~ 1/2 Ripples


Update January 14:
4 Oscar Nominations
– Best Picture, Best Actress, Best Director, Best Adapted Screenplay

Update January 10: Brie Larson won Best Actress Golden Globe

Update Dec. 10:
3 Golden Globe noms for Best Motion Picture-Drama, Best Actress and Best Screenplay. Now 9-year-old Jacob Tremblay got a SAG nom.for Best Supporting Actor. These are just a few mentions among other noms. for the film.

Related Post:

Books to Films at TIFF15

Can a Movie Adaptation ever be as good as the Book?

Published by


If she’s not birding by the Pond, Arti’s likely watching a movie, reading, or writing a review. Creator of Ripple Effects, bylines in Asian American Press, Vague Visages, Curator Magazine.

17 thoughts on “Room: From Book to Film”

  1. What a thoughtful review. ( I would love to watch Life is Beautiful but worried about it being upsetting.) Interesting what happens when you give a film a chance. I think if I had been annoyed by the boy narrator, I might not have bothered. I guess this is a real case of things being different between film and book.


    1. Thanks, Denise. And I wouldn’t worry too much about being upset by Life Is Beautiful, it is poignant yes, but how it is packaged is exactly like how the father re-interprets reality for his young son while in concentration camp: life is beautiful, and fun.


      1. Oh, that does sound so beautiful, but it makes me sad just thinking about how strong the instinct to protect your child is and the contrast between that love the ugliness of humans that they would have concentration camps in the first place.


  2. Wow, awesome! I actually really liked the book and now I am excited to see the movie! My prediction was that it would be a huge disappointment next to the book, but there definitely are some exceptions and I’m anxious to know now if this really is one of them.


  3. Thanks for this. I quite liked the book, although I did struggle with the viewpoint–the voice was a stumbling block for me, for sure, but eventually I got “in the groove” and enjoyed reading. Glad to hear the movie was done well.


  4. This is interesting to me. I’ve had no desire to either see the movie or read the book — stories like this upset me deeply and no matter how the end, I have a hard time getting through them. I may wait till its out on video unless dragged to it, but at least your review and insight gives me reason to believe I might see the film. (All that said, Life is Beautiful is one of my all-time favorites.)


    1. Jeanie,

      I know this isn’t your cup of tea… yes, there are a few other movies out there that you’d rather see. And I’ve a heads-up for you, the Ma of Room, Brie Larson, will be starring in the adaptation of The Glass Castle. Now that one I’m sure you’ll be ok with. 😉


  5. This book and film have been so mercilessly panned by so-called feminists that I’d assumed it was another of those dreary, ideologically-driven stories. I’m sure you read some of the “other” reviews. Links to them, and conversation around them, were all over Twitter for a while. To be frank, much of what I bumped into was coming out of academia, a world I have increasingly lost patience with.

    Your perspective is quite different than what I’ve read, and now I can at least contemplate seeing the film. I don’t think I’d take on the book, though.


    1. Linda,

      Just when I thought nothing surprises me anymore in this world, I was disturbed to read the L.A. Times review. Putting on the feminist glasses to watch this movie has never occurred to me. Anyway, I must stress that I’m a supporter of the equality of women in our society (how else should it be?) and especially with male-dominated Hollywood with its glass ceiling, the actresses, female filmmakers, directors are often subjects of unequal treatments. Now, going to another issue, and this has absolutely nothing to do with the equality of the sexes, and that is, only females have a womb, only females can give birth to an offspring, and afterwards, breast feed her child. And there’s only one kind of love that is called a mother’s love. The film is a vivid illustration of these facts. I’m not saying all mothers are loving and nurturing, but this particular one in this story is. That the film uses these elements to tell a story doesn’t mean it’s condoning the status quo of inequality, or approving rape, or reinforcing male dominance. Rather, it might even highlight what women can do that men can’t. And as the character Ma answers while being interviewed, the captor/rapist isn’t the father. Jack belongs to her only. Of course.


  6. Oh, gosh, Arti, I have been toying with reading Room, but was apprehensive that it would be much too dark. I am happy to hear that the movie did not disappoint, though. I imagine if I see it I’d better bring a lot of Kleenex…if I’m brave enough to give it go. Great review.


  7. As ever a fascinating and beautifully written review, Arti. I can actually imagine that the film might manage to create a really intriguing and significant take on the story. I, too, struggled with the child’s eye vision in the first part of the book and found the second more interesting. In the film, you couldn’t just inhabit that psychological space, you would have to think what was happening in the real space and so the two sides to the tale would be less jarring. I’m not sure I’ll see the film, but I really enjoyed reading your take on it.


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