I will occasionally prepare for the release of a film adapted from a novel by reading the original source material. As a rule, I make every effort to view the resulting film as a separate entity, using my experience with the book as a way to help further identify what went right and wrong with the cinematic work, or even to consider the choices in adaptation in an almost academic sense. I greatly respect that what’s projected onto a screen has different needs than what is printed onto a page and admire the skill of an artful transference as much as some piece of pure invention. All that is precursor to this acknowledged dilemma in assessing the new film Room: I don’t think I’ve ever experienced another instance in which my familiarity with a novel so complicated my view of its adaptation.
I think Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel, Room, is a wondrous feat. In some ways, the basic premise is simple, if harrowing. It begins with a woman and her five year old son, Jack, confined against their will (well, against her will, since he’s never known anything but a boxed-in life) in a tiny shed that’s been repurposed into a rudimentary living space. The woman was abducted years earlier and has been repeatedly raped by her captor, an assault against her very being that has yielded the son, who basically has given her threads of humanity, purpose, and hope to pull her through the misery of her situation. Donoghue’s most striking inspiration is to tell the story through the narrative voice of the boy, convincingly and consistently shaping the various situations of the novel through his more innocent perspective. It’s a vital conceit that was likely impossible to properly replicate in the film version. While there are a handful of moments that the film turns over to narration delivered by the boy (played by Jacob Tremblay), it mostly carries over the plot without the unique perspective.
With that shift, Room retains much of its emotional wallop, but some of the ingenuity. More worrisomely, many of the overt complications of the book are set aside. Donoghue also wrote the screenplay (besides her literary accomplishments, Donoghue is an accomplished playwright), so presumably the alterations are deemed acceptable by the original. Still, I couldn’t quite help but mentally catalog all the elements that were shorn away, leaving a work that is ultimately less ambivalent about its characters, less invested in depicting the internal messiness of human beings. The novel Room is never pat. The film Room isn’t either, but it flirts with it.
There is an unqualified success within the film, though, and that’s the central performance by Brie Larson, playing the mother. Named in the movie, but really known only as “Ma” in the book, the character is understandably the most complicated figure in the story: strong and resilient but simultaneously defeated, a survivor that’s shimmying thanks to a thousand hairline cracks. She’s warm and protective but prone to snappish authority, needful but defiant of help. Larson — already receiving the greatest attention of her career, though she’s already proven that this is her talent level — masters those contradictions, further signaling the desperate, angry thought process of the character as she strains to find her way back to her self. Director Lenny Abrahamson has a nice eye and a astute sense of pacing (and any time there’s a child performance in a film as strong as the one Tremblay give here, a sizable amount of the credit must be given to the director), but his best, shrewdest decision is giving Larson the space and attention required to deliver the kind of powerful, layered work that can make all the difference for a film. This Room loses some of Jack, but the emergent primacy of Ma almost makes up for that, in large part because of the riveting way Larson embodies all of the prickly difficulties that would otherwise be lost in translation.