Often when comparing a film to it’s novel, preference is skewed heavily towards the original work. Details that readers see as essential in the novel have to be changed or excluded when transferring to the new medium. For this reason, the original novelists are often brought on as an executive producer or are at least consulted during the filmmaking process. How much actual say they have in the final product may vary.
However, in the case of the national bestselling novel “Room”, the novelist, Emma Donoghue was also the screenwriter for the film adaptation of her work. The result, was a film that feels, from a storytelling perspective, exactly like its source material. This sometimes beautiful, sometimes chilling story of 5 year old Jack learning of a new world, was awarded the New York Times Book of the Year. Most recently, the film adaptation garnered much attention for it’s multiple Oscar nominations including Best Adapted Screenplay and went home with a win for Best Actress.
Still, no movie can be an exact replica of the novel. Let’s take a look at “Room” and discuss how Donoghue adjusts her storytelling to fit the film medium.
“Room” is the story of Jack, a 5-year old boy who lives in a single 11×11 foot room with his mother. He has never seen anything outside of Room and does not believe anything exists outside of it. His friends are Table, Rug, Wardrobe, Duvet, Bed, Door, and Skylight. There are also things that come into their lives, which are also friends like Egg Snake, Toilet Roll Labyrinth, and Bad Tooth. He and his mother spend every moment together – there is no space in Room for a thing like privacy to exist. They spend their days playing the same games, singing the same songs, reading the same books, watching television, doing arts and crafts, eating, washing and napping together. To Jack, their life together is real and happy but to his mother, Room is a prison she has been forced to endure. Her only solace is the love and closeness she has to Jack.
Still, seven years in one small room has eaten away at Jack’s mother emotionally and mentally. She yearns for freedom for herself and for Jack. After learning of her captors financial problems she becomes desperate and plans an escape. Jack reluctantly goes along with his mother’s plan, despite not fully believing her claims that there is an Outside to Room that is real. He is forced by a desperate mother to play sick, then play dead so that their captor will take him out of Room to bury him. When Jack manages to escape he and his mother are free but the pair must now deal with a different kind of prison. The Outside world is new and complex and different and Jack years to return to the Room and the Ma he knew all his life. His Mother on the other hand must learn to cope with the new scrutiny her sensational story has placed on her and adjust to a world that is different than the one she left seven years ago.
Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay star in “Room.”
“Room” is told from the perspective of Jack, both in the film and the novel. We learn things along with him and thus, the information we receive is limited, as a child’s would be. In the novel, the reader is able to gain insight into how Jack views his world and the things around him by how his thoughts and dialogue is written. The items in Room (and Room Itself) are all capitalized and treated as individuals with thoughts and feelings. One quarter of the way through the book, my mind was spinning. Jack recounts all of the small details in his life with the innocence and naivete of a child but with a stunning numerical and phonetic dexterity that he may not have developed had he been able to grow up as a normal child. With little outside stimuli, Jack finds both comfort and fun in counting and mental exercises. This is one part of the story that is far more pronounced in the novel than in the film, mainly because the medium allows it. It’s also not as necessary to go into detail with in the film, as Jack’s numerical acumen often allows the reader to gain detailed knowledge of the size of Jack’s world and his perception of time, whereas this can be done visually in film.
I found myself often reading and re-reading strings of sentences that ran on and on struggling to interpret what Jack actually meant when he said something – much like you may need to ask a 5 year old to slow down and talk clearly in real life. Donoghue does a very convincing job of speaking as a 5 year old child throughout her story, injecting a simplistic child’s perspective to the very complex situation he and his mother are faced with.
Although the film is also viewed from Jack’s perspective, our ability as an audience to view Jack’s mother with our own eyes allows us to interpret her visual ques based on our own adult experiences. As a viewer who happens to be an adult female, I empathized deeply with the mother’s struggle – moreso in the film than in the novel.That being said, the novel does go in to a lot more detail about the mother’s struggle to cope and her frustration. This is still seen through the eyes of Jack with him often overhearing things being said to his mother from doctors and lawyers and her parents.
So since the author, Emma Donoghue is both the novelist and the screenwriter everything except for a few storytelling elements must be the same, right? Well, not quite.
One of the major differences between the novel and the film was the location and individuals present in the second half of this story. In the novel, Jack and his mother stay at a psychiatric clinic where they can be monitored by doctors and nurses and kept in a safe, private place. In the film, the two return to her childhood home shortly after their admittance to the hospital where family drama becomes a part of their new dynamic. The novel also introduces Jack’s uncle Paul and his family as well as the fact that Jack’s mother is adopted. These are elements that do not exist in the film. Instead, Jack is delighted to learn that his new grandparents have a dog and towards the end of the film, makes a new friend
Another major difference is that the Jack’s mother is never given a name in the novel. Jack is Jack and his mother is Ma. In Jack’s mind she is the only Ma in the world. Even as his world grows, Jack never mentions his mother’s legal name. As a result, the reader has no identity for Jack’s mother other than ‘Jack’s Ma’. She is not an individual. She has no identity without her son. This crisis of identity id touched upon time and again in the novel whenever Jack’s mother describes her life in Room before Jack was born. In the film, Jack’s mother is given the name Joy and part of the journey that both mother and son go on is the road towards independence. Joy needs to learn how to ‘just be Joy’ again and Jack must learn to cope with a world that doesn’t always include his Ma. In the film, they live in Joy’s childhood home with her mother and step father and begin to take those steps together. In the novel, the move into an assisted living facility where they are able to be ‘just the two of them’ again. The path towards independence is much much further down the line and neither seem particularly in a rush to get there.
As I’ve said in other Book 2 Screen Reviews, my purpose here is not to determine which is the superior version of the story – simply to compare how the same story is told in two different mediums. Of the reviews I have done thus far, this one was, by far, one of the more enjoyable ones. The film is a close enough translation of the novel that you can actually appreciate how the storytelling elements need to differ to fit the medium rather than dwell on what was changed or left out. Both film and novel are superb stories.
I encourage anyone to give both a chance.