It is always an interesting exercise watching the movie adaptation of a just-read book.
While literary adaptations are always fraught undertakings with rusted-on readers often holding widely divergent opinions on what should or shouldn’t be included to the producers, the effect is further amplified when the book itself is still a fresh and vital proposition.
Try as you might to intellectually separate the two completely different mediums, it’s near impossible to stop yourself comparing and contrasting particularly when, in the case of Room, the author of the book and the film are one and the same.
Emma Donoghue, who crafted a deeply interior, wholly emotionally-affecting book which deservedly received wide acclaim and an expansive readership, no doubt faced quite a dilemma adapting her book given that so much rests on the perspective of its protagonist, a five year old boy named Jack.
Unlike his mother, Joy (Brie Larson), who is known in the book simply as “Ma”, and who is well-acquainted with freedom and life outside of the small garden shed in which she has been imprisoned for seven years by a sociopath they have nicknamed “Old Nick” (Sean Bridgers), Jack (Jacob Tremblay) knows only Room.
It is his entire world and so when he and Ma finally manage to escape Room, a feat which takes a lengthy period amount of time in the languidly-told book but happens considerably faster in the film, the narrative pivots entirely on his overwhelming sense that Outside, as it’s dubbed, is not as good as Room, which was safe, knowable and a place where he has his mother’s undivided attention.
It makes for a remarkably affecting point-of-view in the book, one that Donoghue must have known couldn’t transfer easily to the big screen.
By and large her solution to this dilemma is admirable.
Much of the book’s action, particularly after freedom is sought and gained, largely at Jack’s hand, sees Jack alone with grandmother (Joan Allen) and step-grandfather Leo (Tom McCamus) while Ma remains in hospital recovering from the ordeal of captivity.
In the film, however, Joy comes home with Jack, and apart from one pivotal scene, she remains through his side with many of the book’s key plot points, conversations and character moments shuffled around so they make more sense in a group setting rather than one in which Jack is the sole featured player.
The plot is still largely built around Jack but Joy features far more prominently in the film version given she is real and present for many events that she simply isn’t around for in the book.
Donoghue has carefully crafted the amended plot flow so many of the key issues – Jack seeing Room as safe while Joy sees it as a prison cell, Outside being a threat for Jack (far more in the book than the film) versus liberation for Joy (though not as much as she thought it would be) and the wider family struggling to adjust to the presence of a long daughter and sister and a brand new grandchild – are still given air and appropriate time to be explored.
However, by removing Jack as the central voice in the narrative, necessary given the demands of film admittedly, much of Room‘s unique voice has not so much been lost as muted.
The emotions aren’t as raw or confronting in many ways despite many of the same core building blocks being in place and while it’s becomes obvious that being in Room was not a great experience for Joy but all he’s ever known and loved for Jack, because the film leaves that world much faster than the book, its impact is lessened somewhat.
Again, not lost at all since we’re given ample chance to see how much Joy has left by being in captivity, how monstrously emotionally-warped Nick is and how wondrously-unaffected, relative at least to what might have happened, Jack is and continues to be.
But overall, much of the emotional is diluted and lessened, the film struggling to stand astride its far more darker, interior literary roots and its more mainstream, emotionally-conventional filmic equivalent.
An example of the more straight down the line emotional interplay is provided in one small scene where Jack has his long hair cut off by his grandmother, an event that in the book is yet another source of tension between an exasperated grandparent who wants a normal grandson, and Jack who doesn’t understand many of the social touchpoints that everyone else in Outside know intuitively and take for granted.
In the film, it becomes a warm-and fuzzy moment that is more movie-of-the-week heartwarming than the gritty indie the film seems to want to be.
It makes sense that Donoghue would lessen the impact somewhat since the topic is a confronting one; but in doing so, and diluting Jack’s voice, we lose much of the emotional resonance that the book conveys so effortlessly and yet profoundly.
All of which means that while Room is not a bad movie – its actually quite good and I suspect that any non-readers of the book will be far more forgiving of some of the adaptive issues mentioned – it doesn’t ring as true as it might have done, despite wholly immersive, affecting performances by Larson and Tremblay, and measured, nuanced direction (for the most part) by Lenny Abrahamson.