A review/comparison of the film and the book, this article does discuss key plot points (as does the film’s trailer).
In ROOM, the 2010 novel by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue, we see the world from the perspective of just-turned-5 Jack. He’s very closely bonded to his mother, curious about the world and learning new things everyday, and generally happy in the protective embrace of his loving Ma. He’s also faced with the confusing and troubling realities of the adult world just beyond his grasp but within his sightline through wardrobe slats as he eavesdrops on conversations he can’t begin to understand but innately senses. As kids do when spying on adults.
But the reality is that Jack and Ma are confined, held by a man who robbed Jack’s Ma of her youth to be his sexual captive for some years. Jack is the product of this crime, its evidence and also its redemption. Ma has found strength and purpose in motherhood, its immediacy and purity pulling her out of a hellish situation that might otherwise have led her to find a way out through the only exit possible to her- suicide. This all sounded a bit farfetched until the Fritzl case (which inspired ROOM) and the recent Ariel Castro story went many levels beyond the pale of this narrative, including the births of children in captivity.
ROOM came along at a point in the literary landscape where pitch dark memoirs, with all their dubious yet car crash like appeal, ruled the bestseller lists and had for some time. Child abuse of all kinds from hunger to indifference to the more explicit kinds was widely disseminated in books of the month or just tell all interviews in between commercial breaks for stain remover in unsatisfying bites presided over by judgy, above it all, childless Oprah. The western world had been trying to nurture its inner children for 15 years without much success, for those wounded inner kids are an inexorable part of the adults that soldier on. Meanwhile, real children were being forced to be real soldiers in endlessly wounded African countries; were and are grist for the mill in wars and suffering the west can barely face and seemingly do little to change.
To pick up the book ROOM for a sensitive person, one carrying all this around, was a dicey proposition. The authors that can handle the darkness of the human experience deftly and without hurting us and this world MORE are rare indeed: Atwood, MacDonald, Ondaatje, Haddon, Safran Foer, Eggers, to name a few I trust. Fiction has long ceased to be an adventurous escape, and like film, is too often just more darkness that does little to relieve that of the day to day in this Millennium. But inside the covers of ROOM lay a beautiful little pearl: here is a story about the unkillable, the unstealable, the essence of humanity and of love. The same navigation occurs when deciding whether to trust a film of such a fraught story. In both cases, the risk is well worth the reward.
Jack’s world, ROOM, up to the age of 5 is all he knows. On the plus side, his care and attention from his mother is consistent and diligent. Like other struggling single mothers, she works hard and craftily to provide his necessities, and uses her own creativity to make the toys she can’t buy, teaching Jack a love of imaginative play and a rare ability to be ok without the distractions we now think are required every 15 minutes in the real world. To survive ROOM, Ma has told Jack some necessary big lies. They have a TV but he believes all of what is seen there is just in TV, and that the two of them and their life in ROOM are all that is real, beyond which, through the skylight, is just sky and outer space. Old Nick, the man who visits at night, is real but is not interacted with and exists in an awkward limbo for Jack.
A turn of events causes Ma to see both the need and the opportunity to tell Jack the hard truths of reality and the world- what it is for them and what it could be for them if they can make some impossibly daring moves to escape their situation. Over a series of long days and weeks Ma begins to reframe the world for Jack as he sees his babyhood end and must become brave and involved in his own life, even one beyond his actual experience or comprehension, a process laid out better on the page. But the film perhaps illustrates the strange, tragic beauty of the world Ma has created for Jack inside this despicable ROOM in a tangible way that goes further than the reader could dream up. The eggshell snake that’s been constructed over weeks, months, even years is an inspired time killing project that makes the breath catch and the tears come hours after viewing. It is filmed beautifully and with a child’s eye for detail- the pattern of sun on a wall, the little non-spaces of carpet and closets that kids like to play in, the way they occupy a space or stay outside of it.
What is truly valiant and significant about this entire narrative, in both the novel and the screenplay written by its author and executed faithfully to the screen, is that this is no sordid or gratuitous tale of the darkness we know, have read too often, have worried too much, or for some can even relate to at the hands of a predator. This is a hero’s epic for our screwed up time. An important but also well-told survivor’s tale, that cares about after; the future, the hopes and unwritten life of the people in it, the nitty gritty. The truth beyond the soundbite.
When our heroes negotiate an escape worthy of Jason Bourne, yet grounded in everyday reality, it is as suspenseful as a big budget action film and no less thrilling. It his higher stakes than all of those rogue spies with all the gadgets and gym bodies, more exciting than a super hero’s triumphant landing. It’s edge of your seat viewing, and it’s enacted by a very small child with dynamism and emotion that Tom Cruise would kill for. Brie Larson is earning deserved raves for her complex and honest portrayal of Ma, but the young Jacob Tremblay as Jack deserves much credit for his sensitive turn and interplay with Larson. His acting and the bond developed between the key actors is at a level beyond most kids on film. As in the book, the viewers is drawn into his world and his cognition in a rare and authentic way. Jack ably hefts his half of the story as his job both inside and outside ROOM (but with a lot more noise, brightness and “persons”) is an awfully big burden for his slim shoulders: to take care of Ma, to give her a reason to live, to motivate her from day to day. For “there’s so much there there.”
The unusual attachment that has formed with Ma and Jack is, understandably, both healthy and unhealthy, enviable and maddening. The person she has become (including “Ma”) is not the person who was taken out of her reality and stripped of agency as a teenager. That life was killed, a road run out in some ways. Her old friends are just pictures in a book. The relay team, no longer. Jack is, like all of us, a product of his Ma, a mini-me. He echoes her in anger. “I decide for both of us.” “Don’t do it again.” And he’s entitled, in those moments. He’s right. We hope he will forget the darkness he fully understands in her eyes. What ROOM becomes through the narrative is a delicate metaphor for the room within the human heart, the power of the imagination, the will to live and to thrive.
What Donoghue plays out and explores has the ring of truth: the splintering of survivors from each other, the very different needs a woman and a child have to help them heal and become individual, the baggage Ma has to carry that we hope Jack can be protected from with so much life yet ahead of him and his condition at the age of 5, in the words of a doctor, of being “plastic”.
Adults have lost their ability to be plastic. The wounds and scars become inflexible patches of self, something to work around or paint over. And the work of painting over and working around becomes another ritual, a chore, that takes us away from what is good and important, authentic.
What ROOM does so well and so honestly is to show the multifaceted sides of love, of instinct, of truth and of human resilience. It’s not showy, it doesn’t swell with manipulative strings or assault us with people in terror, for one minute more than it needs to be clear (and so much less than other films/books) and it’s not an issue film or a movie of the week, it’s a great story to boot. This film and these actors and writers will win awards, and should win awards, like other great and not so great films on the subject of heroism. What it does, as great fiction, is to show how nonfiction it all is in the hands of an artist, enabling us to truly empathize with the child, the Ma, the Grandma, the distant and hollowed out Grandpa. The brokenhearted and the hearts we still hope to redeem. The stuff of life.