Director: Lenny Abrahamson
Writer: Emma Donoghue
Cast: Brie Larson, Jacob Tremblay, Joan Allen, William H. Macy.
In my review to the film Brooklyn I described the dangers of adaptation and the difficulty in bringing to a new medium a work that already has a strong fan base that will feel protective of the source material. Even if the person adapting the work is the very same as the one who created the original problems can arise, sometimes more so.
Earlier this year I read, and wrote about it on this blog, Emma Donoghue’s fantastic novel Room. The story of a five year old boy, Jack, and his mother, “Ma”, who lived in a squalid space as the prisoners of the fearful Old Nick whom had kidnapped the woman seven years earlier had really affected me. It wasn’t, though, the horrors of the situation that got beneath my skin, but rather Jack’s original voice and incredible perspective that resonated with me, even long after the pages had ended. In the book we encounter a child whose surrounding room was the only universe he had ever known, a skylight pointed vertically being the only view of the outside he had ever known. This particular vantage point allowed the young narrator to have a whimsical and matter of fact approach to his life. Ma made sure that Jack was fed, educated, and entertained, so fear was never a very serious component of his life. Even the days in which “Ma” was gone (his euphemism for when his mother’s depression was so bad that she remained in bed all day) were opportunities for him to stretch his independence and to feed himself and watch more television than usual. Every fixture and item in the room were referred to as if it were their proper name, they had character, were almost animated in Jack’s little mind as if he were living a live action version of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. All this is to say that the tone of the first half of the novel is what made it most winning and set it apart from anything else I had read.
So imagine my surprised when the cinematic version of the book did away with so much of that and replaced the lightness with such a pitch black darkness that the film becomes a harrowing horror of kidnapping and imprisonment. I am well aware that this version of the story is much more accurate, it was just jarring – I thought Donoghue and director Lenny Abrahamson would have hit the same notes as the novel, mostly because the film’s poster seemed to indicate that (I didn’t watch a trailer). The film is much more straightforward in making sure the viewer identifies with the claustrophobic detention of the mother and son, and it does so successfully. I was also taken aback by the fact that Ma, played excellently by Brie Larson, was much more short tempered and abrasive than her literary counterpart. It just took me a lot longer to get used to the film than I expected it to, and I am not sure I was ever able to completely settle into a comfortable viewing experience because of the stark contrast between the two works. I know as a fact that those who have never read the book will have a much better experience with the film and be able to appreciate it for what it is able to accomplish, just like I know that the readers will have a harder time adjusting to what is basically a different animal from the one they are used to.
As I said Brie Larson is very good in this film. Differences aside, the actress is strong and vulnerable at the same time, and she see-saws seamlessly between the two extremes extremely well. I remember watching her on the television series United States of Tara and wondering if she would ever shed the entitled teenager roles she seemed to be getting for a while, and here she proves that she is definitely ready and capable of attack much meatier roles. Joan Allen and William H. Macy, who play Ma’s parents in the second half of the film, are not given much to do, but do a swell job with their small parts. A lot of the film’s success, though, is due to Jacob Tremblay who plays the young Jack. Feral and precocious at the same time, the young actor is able to convey so much through a feeble and squeaky voice without ever going into child actor over-the-top mode, over-emoting and garbling dialogue clearly written by an adult. His words, as precocious as they are, ring true and he shows a level of skill that is praiseworthy. Only time will tell if he will be able to sustain these skills or if he will even want to. In the meantime, though, he is deserving of the praise his performance here has garnered.
As a reader and fan of the book I am not the most reliable person to sing the praises of this movie. I recognize that it is very well made and twice I found myself overwhelmed with emotion, the acting is strong and it is very well paced. I think I wanted just a little more of Jack’s candy colored glasses to make me believe that even the worst horrors can assume a different shape when seen through a child’s lens. I wanted the film to be less cynical, less dark, and I guess that I wanted just a little more Peter Pan. Can you blame me?