Room, the Unadaptable Novel that Wasn’t


Directed by Lenny Abrahamson
Opens October 16

The first time we see the woman (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay), it is not immediately clear that something is wrong. The evidence quickly accumulates, but for a few moments, the mother-son bonding obscures the terrifying situation: The woman was abducted at seventeen, stuck in a locked, modified, and soundproofed shed, and kept as a sexual slave with what appears to be an air of domestication, as if Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), as she refers to him, is simply playing extended host, bringing her groceries in between rapes. Seven years after her abduction, she has a five-year-old son by this man, with matching long brown hair, who knows only her and Room, which he uses the way a normal child might say “home,” without a definite article. It’s an awfully small space to hold such a catch-all.

Emma Donoghue adapted the screenplay for Room from her own bestselling novel, which was a triumph of narrative voice, told from Jack’s tiny, not always fully comprehending vantage point. It’s something the movie can’t really duplicate; it’s hard for a limited-location, two-person movie to lock down to a single point of view (even if other characters enter the frame, especially in the back half). This is probably why it’s been hyped as a showcase for Larson, even though young Tremblay gets more screentime, plus narration from the book (often soaked in an ill-advised dreamy echo effect). The movie beefs up Larson’s role by virtue of not filtering it entirely through Jack, which underlines the symbiotic nature of the characters even when they’re not sharing the screen. Their mother-son relationship has a desperate rawness.

In print, Room was also a nailbiting page-turner, even outside of its most thriller-like moments. The film version has moments of creepy urgency, but for the most part it’s more of a character piece. Much of the cinematography in the first half uses standard-issue evocations of claustrophobia: handheld shots, close-ups, shallow focus. Perhaps even moreso than director Lenny Abrahamson’s previous confinement project, the smart and sad comedy Frank, the filmmaking serves the performances (some elegant overhead shots, in and out of Room, nonwithstanding). Larson is especially compelling in contrast to the righteous-mother thrillers that found particular Hollywood vogue about a decade ago, led by Jodie Foster fiercely protecting and/or avenging her kids in Panic Room and Flightplan. Larson shows this woman’s grit and tenderness, but also the impatience fraying at her nerves—both from general close-quarters living with a little kid, and the gradual revelation that she’s been thinking about what happens when the kid turns five for a long time.

Through this crisis point and beyond, Room does right by Donoghue’s book. Why, then, does it feel like one of the more respectable book-to-film YA adaptations, like a Hunger Games movie? It may be my fault for knowing and loving the book, but it’s a shame that this knowledge so thoroughly eliminates much surprise from the movie—not in terms of plot twists, mind, but in terms of how the material is approached now that it’s a movie. Most of the major differences (like the break from absolute first-person) amount only to what was necessary. In a perverse way, watching a very good book like Room adapted into a solid, well-acted little drama almost makes me want to see, if not a travesty, a version with its own gambits as bold as Donoghue’s original text. Instead, the ungrateful cross-section of film fans and book fans receive something that twenty or thirty years ago would have been cause for great relief: a good movie, slightly boxed in.


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