An Emotional Double Experience

18 November 2015 | 3:01 pm | Brendan Telford

"These are two people who have been penned away and have now come out into the world and you have to do that justice."

The 2010 novel Room by Irish-Canadian author Emma Donoghue was a global dramatic hit that focused on terrifying subject matter — the lives of a mother and her child, imprisoned in a room in small-town America by a nameless man for many years without anyone knowing. What's more, the boy was born in captivity, and knows nothing of the outside world. Such a harrowing foundation is dealt with deftly and with emotional nous to create a story that is more about the bonds between mother and son than it is about the situation they found themselves in. It is a difficult balancing act — a sensationalist trivialisation of a horrific real-world ordeal on the one hand, and emotional mawkishness on the other — yet director Lenny Abrahamson (What Richard Did, Frank) has managed to find that equilibrium.

"It says a lot about the capacity of children to make, from the most limited environments, the full range of childhood once they have a solid relationship."

"When I read the book, I had a boy who was around four at the time and so I was thinking a lot about kids what it means to parent them," Abrahamson explains. "It's a double experience because it can bring you back to your own childhood. I thought what Emma did was so fascinating and clever, to make this about the functional aspects of the situation rather than the dysfunctional, and it says a lot about the capacity of children to make, from the most limited environments, the full range of childhood once they have a solid relationship in the middle of that. I think it was a combination of the excitement of what had been achieved in the novel, the emotional effect it had on me, and then that feeling that it would be a real challenge to make a film work of this novel."

The spectre of the Josef Fritzl case of 2008, and other real-world case like it, looms large over Room, yet Abrahamson is quick to point out that the story runs far deeper than any source material. "The Fritzl case definitely inspired Room, but in the sense that Emma became fascinated by the image of the youngest boy, a kid that had never been out of this place and what it would be like to re-enter the world, and there are a whole series of metaphors from such a story that adheres to all childhoods and parenting. We all, if we're lucky, live in a bubble that is parentally created to protect us from the darker aspects of the world and yet that bubble isn't impermeable, and as you get a bit older the shadows start to call, and how parents negotiate that path for their children."

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Donoghue adapted the screenplay from her own novel, and Abrahamson worked closely with her to bring some of his own concerns to the screen. "With Emma, we reconfigured the second half. In the novel the mother (played by the striking Brie Larson) is a projection; we see her through Jack (newcomer Jacob Tremblay), but she isn't really never built up as a character. So we also intensified her relationship with her own mother to make it really about two parent/child relationships. Also realising that the second half of the novel is like a long coda to this room and the escape, which takes up nearly two-thirds of the novel, as we are out and inside the outside world nearly halfway. This is a proper adaptation where I really wanted to be faithful to the things in the novel that I found most moving."

Nevertheless there were various pitfalls that Abrahamson was careful to avoid, such as trivialising or "overegging" the events to the point of melodrama.

"With Room I felt we should keep it a very delicate and unobtrusive approach, so that the inflection you are giving things does not announce itself, and an audience can feel a process of discovery and that they can be moved to discover," Abrahamson states. "I wanted to disappear in the film, and also make the second half of the film more subtle. So rather than show the boy's first experience of a shopping mall, [we] concentrate on the relationship of these two people and make that the focus of the film rigorously from the beginning of the film to the end, so that you feel that the escape is going to be the conclusion of the problem and then you realise that this relationship, this thing you now care for a hell of a lot, is being pulled. These are two people who have been penned away and have now come out into the world, and you have to do that justice where the escape scene is this incredibly tense thing. You need to have a valve though. One reviewer said he gave me a pass with the scene with the dog because he felt with such an emotional film a moment of schmaltz was acceptable. I think I did alright."