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.
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.