So You Don’t Have To Read It: ROOM–from book to film

Room Book.jpg

Herein, I will outline the major differences between the novel Room by Emma Donoghue, and the film Room, adapted for the screen by Lenny Abrahamson. To be sure, I believe the film is a fine example of the adapted screenplay, and I think over the alternatives it should have won Best Adapted Screenplay at the 2016 Oscars. There are many details in the book forgone in the film, surely, as there are many shifts in settings and organization of material, but what makes Room a great example of the Adapted Screenplay is that it brings the book to life by producing the same spirit and the same energy that is found in the original story. Much of this has to do with the perfect casting of Jacob Tremblay as Jack and Brie Larson as Ma; these actors truly portray their respective characters with respect and credulity. That said, while the film is exceptionally cinematic, and I consider it a modern masterpiece (see review here), it gleans over many aspects of the story, either only touching on themes or removing certain themes. This is expected of any and all adaptations, as the number of settings, scenes, dialogues, and narration could never fit completely in a mere two hour feature. This post will survey those seemingly incidental aspects of the story which were either removed or toned down.

Frankly, the first half of the film is far closer an adaptation than the second. There is very little in the first three chapters of the book, before their escape, which is not figured somehow into the film. Due to the single setting and routine behaviour of this half of book and film, Abrahamson is able to present much of what the book has to offer. In the second half of the book, which takes us on a journey through many different settings and many different characters, there is much left at the wayside. Characters are written out, scenes are written out, the time pressure and settings change, and the film’s themes are to some degree dampered by the film’s practical needs.

The film opens with a montage of blurry images from the subjective perspective of a half-asleep Jack. Voice-over, narration taken from much later in the book, provides an introduction. Jack tells us that he zoomed down from heaven to save Ma. He wakes up and announces he’s five years old, and so the story begins. The montage includes a vague shot of Ma (Brie Larson) flicking on and off a lamp. The first time I saw this film, I didn’t understand what this image was, and I ignored it. It never happens again. There is also a point in the film wherein Jack and Ma scream as loud as they can, and this occurs before  Ma reveals to Jack–and thus the audience–that they are trapped. While these two moments happen only once each in the film, they happen a number of times in the book, enough to make the reader acutely aware of how desperate, how routine, how repetitive their lives are. They scream, to Jack Scream is a game, but no one can hear them. She turns the light on and off on and off but no one sees them. This happens every day.

One does not get as strong of a sense of monotony and repetition from the film. Cinema must manipulate time, and so instead we get a seemingly much faster build to their escape. Multiple day events might be strewn together. For example, in the book, one day Jack uses remote to move the truck, which falls down and wakes up Old Nick. He freaks out and beats Ma. On a later day is when Jack actually exits wardrobe. So too does their plan escalate quickly. Instead of several days of thinking and debating, Abrahamson throws us right into the action. He manages to show Ma’s desperation and Jack’s anxiety, but he does so using a few images. Her face of determination and his face of apprehension is worth the 20 pages of conversation in the book. Though the book has separate sections wherein Ma explains the plan and together they execute it, the advent of cinema allows Ma’s voice-over explanation to narrate over a montage of their practice. It adapts the literary to the cinematic, replacing words with images.

Some details in the first half which are mostly ignored include the number of times Jack reads his five books, how fascinated with Dora he is, how he calls his penis silly when it stands up, how he’s always asking for ‘some’–breast milk. His fixation with Ma’s nourishing breasts is entirely removed from the film for perhaps it is a more controversial subject. The act itself is very subtle in the one scene it is shown, while it occurs much in the book on top of much narration from Jack about how he prefers the creamier left breast, how he misses Ma when he doesn’t have some, etc.

On his 5th birthday, the first day of the story, Ma gives Jack a picture which she draws of him. He places it in wardrobe and during the cathartic finale when Jack roams around in Room saying goodbye to everything, he takes the picture from wardrobe and takes it with him. This poignant moment is for some reason taken out of the film entirely. Perhaps Abrahamson didn’t feel it was necessary to have this motif since images from the beginning and ending of the film already resonate on a poetic level, giving a sense of circularity without the need for a prop.


Because of the sheer number of changes in the second half of the film, I will try to just survey the points without spending much time with details of each. But first I’ll bring up perhaps the most fascinating omission from the film: a stillbirth. In the book, Jack is Ma’s second child. The first one, a girl, who was also conceived in Room, died in the womb. Old Nick buries the dead baby in the backyard. This is a source of much of Ma’s pain, and also explains why keeping Jack was so important to her. She believed it was her second chance, and that Jack was the same baby, come down as a boy, come to save her. It’s important to note that she believes Jack saved HER, not the other way around. This is why she yells at Old Nick to bury Jack far away, and it is why she becomes so irate when the news-lady asks her if she ever considered making the ultimate sacrifice by asking Old Nick to leave Jack somewhere. I understand that including this in the film would perhaps bring controversy and complication to the story, but I think knowing this occurred in her life is important to understand her motivations, particularly the suicide attempt which otherwise seems to come out of the blue. It should also be mentioned that Ma’s ‘Gone days’ occur a number of times in the book before her suicide attempt, so it is certainly a little better foreshadowed there.

In the film, Ma and Jack arrive at the clinic, stay for a seemingly short period of time, meet Grandma and Grandpa, then go together to the house with the hammock, they’re family home. This is hugely different from the book. The majority of the second half of the book, in fact, occurs in the clinic itself. They stay in the clinic for a few weeks in order to transition to the world outside. They wear masks for several days to not catch germs, Jack wears sunglasses and sunscreen but gets afraid of the blur outside the revolving door. With the help of Dr. Clay and Noreen, he slowly becomes able to go outdoors. Note that Noreen is not in the film, Dr. Clay is Dr. Mittal, Officer Oh is Officer Parker, and Ajeet, the dog walking man who finds Jack is a Caucasian man named Doug. Why the ethnicity shifts, I’m not really sure, but I suppose an Indian doctor and a Caucasian dog-walker is more movie-cliche than a Caucasian doctor and Indian dog-walker.

In the book, Ma has a brother, Paul, who has a wife, Deana, and daughter, Bronwyn. They take Jack to the mall where he gets himself a Dora backpack which he loves and puts all his treasures in. The treasures include a rock, a glittery heart, Bad Tooth, etc. He plays with Brownwyn, who is a little younger. Everyone, including doctors, recognize how gifted and developed his language skills are. The prime-time television recording occurs at the clinic, and the following day Ma has a ‘Gone’ day, but when Jack comes back, shes covered in vomit–Code Blue! For this reason, Jack goes home with Grandma, and in the book, all the scenes in the house are of just Jack, Steppa, and Grandma. An added detail to the book is the everyday heroism of Steppa, Jack’s step-grandfather, who takes on a brave fatherly role while Ma is still in the hospital. Perhaps Steppa’s dog is Abrahamson measure to make up for all the cut scenes with him. Meanwhile, Grandma takes Jack to the park a few times, and lets him play in the backyard and try new things. He misses room and asks for Remote and Rug, which are delivered by the Police. Ma eventually returns but spends little time at the house, for she has been given a room for her and Jack at an Independent Living Facility, where her and Jack go to start their new lives.

This very large section of the book deals strictly with Jack and his fascination with the world. All the new experiences that he encounters are detailed. As a book based on the concept of Plato’s Cave allegory, this section serves as a strongly literary, highly conceptual, and fascinating view at a unique life. His first encounter with grass–it doesn’t prick; with a bee–it stings; with children–he’s scared. It strongly motivates the ideas held in Plato’s allegory about the fear & joy encountered in new experience and mind-expansion.

My one qualm with the film is that it removes too much of this theme, and instead focuses more on how Jack and Ma fit back in with the family and with society, on a seemingly more superficial but more easily digestible manner. The weakest part of the film is from when Jack and Ma arrive home until the prime-time T.V. talk-show to the suicide attempt. It is the flattest and most banal section. On the other hand, this same section is the most fascinating part of the book, as Emma Donoghue’s novel cares far more greatly to extol on Jack’s subjective experience. It is a long section wherein Jack is without Ma, and he keeps sucking on Bad Tooth, and he learns to be independent. Granted, the film can’t present every detail of the book, but the choice to present Ma at the home the whole time is a questionable one since it doesn’t adequately show Jack’s degree of separation anxiety and lack of social development.

There are some other details, of course, such as the resolution with Grandpa which doesn’t quite occur in the film, or how Jack and Ma put names on their own individual rooms in their new home, but continuing with these details may border on pedantic so I’ll leave the comparison here for now. It might seem, after detailing story differences that the book has more to offer, but it’s only because it is far too daunting to try to compare the quality of cinematic form with literary form. I have only talked about the story because its the most tangible. It should be mentioned that beautiful moments of the film, such as Ma’s lullaby sung to Jack in Wardrobe, and the brilliant close up of Jack’s eyes when he sees the blue sky through rug for the first time during their Great Escape, cannot adequately be compared to their literary counterparts. For one, music and cinematography are distinct arts. What matters, however, is that the tone, the energy, the spirit of the characters and the film’s themes are supported by the music and cinematography. And in this case, they most certainly serve as an enhancement rather than a detriment: the sign of a great adaptation.

Room Eyes


About Kamran Ahmed

I have a Masters in Cinema Studies from the University of Toronto. I work as a freelance writer and film critic in Vancouver. My writing is primarily distributed through Next Projection, an online film journal based in Toronto.
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