Book Review: Room by Emma Donoghue


Room: 7 out of 10 stars

About a month after I finished reading Room, I found out it was being made into a movie. My heart sank.

I haven’t seen the movie, and I’m sure Brie Larson kills it (because of course she would), and that it’s really well done, and all such things. But I recognized the production of this movie instantly as a money-making, leech-off-the-book kind of scheme. When a book is as beautiful, captivating, and mysterious as Room, a producer’s gut instinct is to make it into a movie. In Hollywood, it makes sense to simply translate incredible books into movies. They’ll turn a quick buck and it’ll be wildly successful. Done.

The problem with Room, like so many book-to-movie adaptations, is that it’s nearly impossible to capture the book’s glimmering beauty in a film. What I loved about Room is the creative narration from Jack, a five-year-old boy who only knows the 12’ x 12’ room in which he’s lived his entire life. His mother, Ma, has been held captive for year by a kidnapper in this room.

An unexpected pregnancy (it should be pretty obvious how that happens) means that Ma gave birth to Jack in this room and raises him as best as she knows how, all while dreaming of the outside world she once knew.

But Jack doesn’t know there is an outside world. He only knows Room and the few possessions that fill it. Jack watches TV for a few hours a day but believes that everything on TV takes place within the TV, not in the world beyond the four walls of Room. The way Jack describes this small space, his few toys, and the things that fill Room—all of which have their own personality and spirit in Jack’s mind—are all presented to the reader exactly as he sees them. Room is everything to Jack, and the idea of leaving and going someone else doesn’t make sense to him.

Whatever Ma thinks and feels are concealed to the viewer and only relayed via Jack’s keen perceptions, although doesn’t understand why Ma gets so sad some days. We can only imagine what thoughts run through Ma’s mind: held captive for years and longing to escape, she recognizes that life thrives outside of this cell but must raise Jack as best she can.

While reading, I was forced to think like a critical child through Jack’s narration. I found myself working out Jack’s descriptions to understand what he was looking at, then smiling unexpectedly when he described something in precisely the way I would’ve described the same thing as a child. Donoghue’s choice in making Jack the narrator of this story gave Room an entirely different dimension than most other books I’ve read. I loved seeing the world through Jack’s eyes. This twist on an otherwise decent storyline elevated Room from a pretty good story to a wonderful, thought-provoking, and engrossing book.

As I’ve mentioned, I’ve still not seen the movie adaptation of Room, but I already know it isn’t possible to translate Jack’s narration into a film. Reading Jack’s account of his surroundings pushes the reader to imagine his world, his Room, and bring it to life in their mind. A movie forces us to see Room instead of dissecting his childlike descriptions; the visual aid of film would ruin the magic, the puzzle, the wonder.

I’m not 100% against movie adaptations of books. Some books translate really successfully because the story can conceal its secrets and surprises so they are effectively presented later in the movie. Gone Girl, Jurassic Park, Life of Pi, the entire Harry Potter series: it’s still worth it to read these books, but the elements that make them worth reading also work well in film.

Other books need to be read. It’s why All The King’s Men, Ender’s Game, and The Great Gatsby all sucked (sorry, Leo). When I heard The Giver was being made into a movie, I already hated it because I knew one crucial element from the book wouldn’t translate at all. J. D. Sallinger explained why he never sold the rights to Catcher in the Rye (a movie I’d refuse to see if it ever became a movie, because I know that’s what Holden Caulfield would want):

“…for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator’s voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons — in a word, his thoughts. He can’t legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique.

This is precisely why I love Room, too. The story is Jack. The book is his thoughts. Room is his known universe. To envision it the way Hollywood wants me to envision it—instead of the way Jack describes it to me—doesn’t do Room justice.

Whether or not you’ve seen the movie, I encourage you to read the book. It’s a fast read, even for how little can actually occur in a tiny room. Room is playful, honest, and sincere. I learned to see the world in a whole new way while reading this book, and I found a new appreciation for grass, my bed, and doors all around me that I can open whenever I want.

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