It’s easy to see why Emma Donoghue’s novel Room won so many awards following its publication in 2010. Among other plaudits, it was one of the New York Times Book Review’s best books of the year, as well as a finalist for the Man Booker Prize.
The plot of Donoghue’s book could’ve easily been grist for the mill of a disposable airport thriller. Its outline is plenty chilling, after all: a young college student is kidnapped and held as a sex slave in a garden shed, where she later gives birth to a son, her abductor’s offspring.
Instead, Room’s focus on the mother and child – unfolding across their captive existence, escape efforts, and subsequent struggles to adapt to the bigger world – results in an amazingly warm, poignant, and insightful tale.
Donoghue’s book is so insightful, in fact, that I’ll wager it’s being used in some psychology courses. Told entirely from the point of view of five year old Jack, Room appears effortless in illustrating early childhood magical thinking, not to mention the developmental process of separation/individuation. Through Jack’s eyes, we also feel the potency of the mother-child bond, the effects of trauma, and the halting process of recovery.
The drama of the movie Room, directed by Lenny Abrahamson and with screenplay by the book’s author, is still seen mostly from Jack’s perspective. There’s no question, however, that the tale’s power is diluted by mixing the youngster’s point of view with more detached third-person shots. Even in giving Jack’s mother the name Joy (she’s only referred to as Ma throughout the book), the film reduces the force of the child’s eye view subjectivity.
Nonetheless, Abrahamson and his team get a lot right, starting with the visuals. Jack and Ma have an unhealthy tinge to their skin and a raggedy quality to their clothing. With its worn, sound-muffling surfaces and its single illuminating skylight, their cell has a dingy, convincingly lived-in feel to it.
Donoghue also preserves many of the book’s linguistic charms in her screenplay. In his childish animism, Jack refers to everything in Room with a proper name: Wardrobe, Sink, even Ma’s Bad Tooth. When their captor Old Nick brings them supplies weekly, Jack calls this Sundaytreat. Jack keeps his hair long like Samson, so he can preserve his “strong.”
Unfortunately, the supporting cast is not fleshed out nearly as well. Joy’s mother (Joan Allen) is almost unfailingly patient, while her stepdad Leo (Tom McManus) has an unchanging, go-with-the-flow affability. William H. Macy disappears far too quickly as Joy’s dad, unable even to look at Jack, as the product of Old Nick’s serial rape of his daughter.
The movie also has its share of suspense around Jack and Ma’s escape, and plenty of heart-tugging moments related to its aftermath. But this is where the film suffers most in comparison to the book. As is so often the case with literary adaptations, Room the movie feels narratively and emotionally like a greatest hits compilation.
The book gives us much more, um, room to perceive Ma’s extraordinary toughness. In caring for her son and giving him as full a life as their confining space allows, she is far better than a “good enough” parent.
And while I liked the hyperesthetic feel of Jack’s first minutes outside of Room in the movie, the post-captivity experiences are an order of magnitude richer in the book, for their lack of compression.
The film also shortchanges the original’s social commentary. Both versions by their very tone illustrate how media accounts of trauma and violence overemphasize the sensational and devalue the truly human. Here again, though, the book shows more vigor, especially in the scenes involving Ma’s interactions with a pseudo-empathic talk show host.
Please don’t get me wrong. Room still offers an above average movie experience. But if you’re inclined to choose only one, read the book instead.
3.5 out of 5 stars
(Parents’ guide: Bafflingly, the MPAA has rated this film R for language only. I find the implicit sexual and physical violence much more troubling, enough that this film probably warrants a trigger alert for domestic violence victims. For youngsters blissfully untroubled by trauma in their lives, this would probably be a film suitable for those 16 and over.)