In many ways, the verdict is already in. This film-festival darling boasts a 95% approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes, with much of that praise heaped upon its two leads (Brie Larson as Ma, and Jacob Tremblay as five-year-old Jack), both of whom have already garnered some Academy buzz—and that’s all before the wide release tomorrow, November 6th.
In some ways, it’s an unlikely success. Room is a hard story, made harder by its intense focus: a 26-year-old woman was kidnapped seven years before the start of the film and has been kept in a soundproof, one-room garden shed for the whole of her captivity. But, as in the 2010 source novel of the same name, it’s through the eyes of her five-year-old son—a product of her continuous rape, who has never known life outside—that the story is told.
Roughly the first half of the film takes place inside that shed, or Room, as Jack calls it. For Jack, there’s Room and there’s Outside, the world he knows only through television. Despite the circumstances, his Ma has done what she can to raise him in as normal and safe a way as possible: by teaching him hygiene, by keeping him out of sight in a wardrobe when their captor makes his visits . . . and by telling him that Outside is a fantasy (“What was I meant to tell him—” she says in the book, a sentiment that is echoed in the film, “Hey, there’s a world of fun out there and you can’t have any of it?”).
This was one of the few adaptions I’ve seen that
didn’t pale in comparison to the source material.
The second half, after their escape, deals mostly with Ma’s difficult recovery and Jack’s adjustment to the world after a lifetime in an 11-by-11 room. Neither half seems as though it would be inherently watchable—nor, for that matter, readable, although Donoghue’s novel was also the subject of extensive acclaim, including a spot on the shortlist for the Booker Award. The fact that Donoghue herself penned the script for this adaption has a lot to do with the success of its transition, but it is Larson and Tremblay that elevate it from a faithful recreation to something more luminous.
For me, as a reader, this was one of the few adaptions I’ve seen that didn’t pale in comparison to the source material. Instead, book and film enhance each other, creating an experience that is driven much more by raw emotion than it is by artifice, which means that the plot doesn’t matter as much as the moment. I’d read the book, yes, but knowing what was going to happen didn’t stop me from having my heart in my throat during Jack’s first harrowing venture into the world. For that matter, it didn’t stop my roommate, either: she’d read the book, too, but about an hour into the film she had a death grip on my elbow.
It’s a bit of a fairy tale. Room has much in common with Rapunzel’s tower—for Jack, it’s home and a fortress, while for Ma, it’s a symbol of her captivity. And the ultimate trick of Room the place and Room the film is that it shrinks everything down to the basest feeling, to the current experience. It’s wrenching and redemptive, horrifying and healing, and for those two hours in the theater, there is no Outside. Viewers (and readers) are held captive as surely as the characters.