An empathetic and uniquely cinematic adaptation of a book

Teodosia Dobriyanova on Lenny Abrahamson’s ‘Room’ (2015)

The criticism that cinema met at its very dawn has almost disappeared. People have come to terms with the artistic merit of film and rarely question it. However, there are still some who tend to undermine the nature of the medium by comparing it to other art forms. The most common critique of film nowadays seems to be in regard to literary adaptations. How many times have you walked out of the theatre after seeing an adaptation, and heard somebody beside you say “It is not like the book,” or “The books are always better than the films”? Once I saw a picture of an iceberg on which a little piece of ice was showing above the surface of the water, while the considerably bigger remaining part of the iceberg was hidden beneath. Somebody had wittingly written a caption claiming: “The film vs. the book,” intended to suggest that film can never reach the depths of literature. What’s ironic about this picture is that the author used a photographic metaphor to argue literature’s supremacy over film.

What we need to understand is that, since cinema and literature are different mediums, they have different approaches to storytelling. Literature expresses itself verbally, while film uses visual language. The latter, however, is no less a language than the former, it has its own dictionary and syntax and, just like a verbal language, if a person is unable to understand it, this does not mean that the language lacks sense, but rather that the reader is incapable of making sense of it.

Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Emma Donoghue’s novel Room is one of 2016’s most powerful examples of this statement, and a journey through visually narrated emotions, thoughts and perceptions. It is the story of a 24-year old woman named Joy (Brie Larson), whose life has been anything but joyous after, at 17 years old, she is kidnapped and locked in a shed by a man (rightfully) nicknamed Old Nick. The film tells its story from the last days of Joy’s captivity when she lives in the one-room shed with her now five year-old son Jack, whom she tries to provide with functioning life as possible. To achieve this, Joy tells her son that “Room” is the only world that exists. There is also Heaven and there is Television, but people there are flat and not real. Nothing outside of Room is real. In fact, there is no such thing as ‘outside’. However, one day Old Nick tells Joy that, due to financial struggles and unemployment, soon he may not be able to pay for the electricity that is crucial for their survival. Even though she is risking a lot now that Jack exists, Joy knows that they should run away as soon as possible and so she plans an escape which succeeds in the end.

What is unique about Room is that the film never leaves the realm of present – it constantly follows the characters as they go through the events with no use of flashbacks or parallel editing. The spectators are not given an omniscient view over the film, but are instead immersed into the here and now of the characters; the camera embodies their physical experiences in a way that they become the spectator’s as well. When Jack and his Ma live in the room, the small space feels vast and unfathomable—after all, Room is Jack’s whole world. Actually, the film’s predominant concern seems to be a representation of a child’s perception of the world and how it expands with time. When a child is born, the house it lives in with its parents is the whole world; then the child goes out on the street outside and the world expands a little bit; then it goes to the next block and the next, to the shop, to school, etc. With time, the world gets bigger and bigger, but the point is that it never feels small in the first place. For a child, a world which constitutes a few rooms, a yard and a street, is as vast as the ‘real’ world the kid will discover as it grows old. But what if one’s whole life has been spent in a single room? The space from one corner to the other, from under the bed to the ceiling, becomes all the space there is. For the first four years of Jack’s life, Room is the whole world. And imagine spending your life being told what Jack has been told, and then suddenly the same person who has told you those facts comes to you and tries to convince you otherwise.

The first part of the film is all about Jack’s journey from knowing to unlearning to relearning, it’s about his physical journey from the world of Room to the outside world, and everything he encounters on the way. The audience is given the chance to an emphatic co-experience with Jack because of Room’s cinematography by Danny Cohen. The viewer experiences spaces in the way Jack does; when he is exposed to the sun for the first time in his life, the spectator’s eye is just as overwhelmed by light. The spectator follows Jack and learns along with him.

The second part of the film begins after Jack and Joy enter the world. From Jack’s point of view everything is new, but for Joy, after dreaming of home for so long, everything has changed. As a result of her disappearance, her parents’ marriage has cracked under the pressure. Joy’s father now lives somewhere else and even though he visits after his daughter’s return, he is unable to bear Jack’s presence– the living proof that his daughter has been kidnapped and molested for seven years. But the second part is also the moment when Joy’s devotion to keeping Jack safe is rewarded – her son is now away from the threat of Old Nick. The mother-son bond which they have both relied on for sanity and survival cannot exist in the same way it did in Room, giving Joy the space to face her own trauma. Jack, on the other hand, has to learn separation – his mother no longer breastfeeds him, he spends time without her and there are physical barriers such as people, doors and walls that transform the intimacy they share.

Among all else, Room is a story about the process of a mother and son’s division from one entity into two individuals. Jack now needs to meet the outside world and Joy has to face herself. What makes Room a good adaptation is that all of what was discussed here is told without words. Abrahamson takes the story and narrates it through the language of cinema – a language capable of bringing the empathetic experience of a certain here-now-along-ness that no other medium is able to communicate quite like this.

Room is showing in cinemas now.

Teodosia Dobriyanova

By Teodosia Dobriyanova

Teodosia Dobriyanova is a writer, programmer, and documentary filmmaker based in London. She graduated in Film Studies (BA) from King’s College London (BA) and Ethnographic and Documentary Film (MA) from University College London. She has written for Dirty Movies, Filmotomy, and New East Cinema.