The extraordinary story of Jack (Jacob Tremblay in a breakout performance), a spirited 5-year-old who is looked after by his loving and devoted Ma (Brie Larson, SHORT TERM 12, TRAINWRECK). Like any good mother, Ma dedicates herself to keeping Jack happy and safe, nurturing him with warmth and love and doing typical things like playing games and telling stories. Their life, however, is anything but typical—they are trapped—confined to a windowless, 10-by-10-foot space, which Ma has euphemistically named “Room.” Ma has created a whole universe for Jack within Room, and she will stop at nothing to ensure that, even in this treacherous environment, Jack is able to live a complete and fulfilling life. But as Jack’s curiosity about their situation grows, and Ma’s resilience reaches its breaking point, they enact a risky plan to escape, ultimately bringing them face-to-face with what may turn out to be the scariest thing yet: the real world. ROOM also stars three-time Academy Award® nominee Joan Allen and Academy Award® nominee William H. Macy.
It’s rare for authors to adapt their own bestsellers for the screen; and the writer of ROOM, Emma Donoghue, had no screen credits to her name so she decided, even as she was writing the novel, that she would pre-emptively start her own adaptation, bringing her unique vision to it.
Indeed, as her instincts suggested, the subject of a film soon came up and Donoghue was prepared.
The story of Jack and Ma is inspired by the harrowing true story of Elisabeth Fritzl – an Austrian girl imprisoned by her abusive father in a basement dungeon for 24 years. While in captivity, Fritzl had given birth to several children, some of whom were raised with her in their sealed chamber.
Donoghue had little interest in the criminal or psychotic elements of the story, instead she was drawn to far larger, juicier questions about human nature and human resilience that Fritzl’s strange motherhood and sheer survival triggered: What would being a parent be like in a locked room? How could you best hope to raise a child completely removed from society from birth? What would happen if you emerged into modern life after living in apart from it all or part of your existence?
The metaphorical underpinnings of ROOM were swirling and vast – at every turn the story seemed to reflect on the mysteries of life itself: on the wondrous, haunting privateness of childhood; on the primal, protective drives of parenthood; on the urge to create meaning out of wherever and whatever we are. As Donoghue puts it: “It was a way of taking the most extreme parent-child situation to explore the everyday experiences of parents and children – to explore the full span of emotions that come into play in this essential, somewhat crazy drama of our lives.”
The book’s darkness was offset by an undercurrent of love – messy, flawed, burdened, never-ending love – that runs throughout. Says Donoghue: “One of the ideas behind ROOM is that children have this natural tendency to thrive. So long as they’re getting love and affection, even if it’s in dark or incomprehensible circumstances, they’re so adaptable, they’ll find a way to be OK and to grow up.”
Those same themes would remain at the heart of the screenplay. But Donoghue was acutely aware that film demands an immediacy a novel doesn’t, so she approached the screenplay as its own linked but independent creature.
“The excitement for the reader is slowly putting together all these clues as to what is happening, but I knew for a film audience, I had to get the story rolling fast.”
Perhaps the biggest puzzle of the adaptation was how to contrast life inside Room in the film’s enclosed first half with the total sensory overload of life outside Room in the chaotic but redemptive second half. While it might seem that Ma and Jack’s battle is over, instead it quickly becomes clear their freedom will demand as much of Ma and Jack as Room ever did. Even as they try to bounce back from an overwhelming ordeal, they have to keep adapting and holding fast to each another.