*This essay contains spoilers – oh and abuse, but more importantly: spoilers*
Last night, with my husband out of town visiting family, after a long day of work and transit, with very little in my emotional tank, I went and saw Lenny Abrahamson’s Room. That is, Lenny Abrahamson directed it, but in truth, it’s Emma Donoghue’s Room, since she wrote the book and the screenplay. It is also Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay’s Room, since they so ably played the leads.
Wow Ma! I’d have thought you’d have more jaundice!
What it isn’t, I realized, is my Room. When I read the original book, I connected with it. Though it felt a bit exploitative (a la Flowers In The Attic) something rang true. Whether Ms. Donoghue has well-honed writer’s empathy or whether she has had her own traps to escape, I found some decent mirrors in the book. Moments where, internally, I said, “Yes! That’s it!”
The movie had none of that.
A bit of history: I was not kidnapped (phew, right?) I did grow up with a massive amount of religious restriction, abuse and a lot of psychological fuckery. For a while, I had my own “room”. By way of putting me in my place, I was housed in the pantry of our apartment. To be fair, it was pretty big, for a pantry, but I could touch both walls standing left to right.
That was the wall my bed was on. Since a bed did not fit, I actually had a mattress made of foam on an old folding table. Over the table-bed, a few shelves were hung on which I banged my head most mornings. I actually liked the table-bed because I could hide under it and still be sitting up. I wrote many a teen-angst tome under there, pressed in between all my possessions in boxes. That’s one of the things the book Room communicated so much better than the film: the nostalgia for bits of the prison; the parts that one loved. When your choices are limited, you still need to love something best. I loved under my table-bed.
There was an entry to the kitchen from my room, but it was boarded over with plywood. There was a space of about a foot left off the top so I would get fresh air. There was a curtain there for privacy, but anyone could move it and peek in on me, so you can see why hiding under the table-bed was useful. Because of that one foot gap, I needed to be silent most of the time. If I played music, it was heard in the kitchen and living room. Any sound brought questions about what I was doing. I learned to move quietly, though never delicately. It’s just not in me.
On the wall opposite my bed was a door. It was about 8 feet away from the wall with my bed. (I can’t be sure of the exact room measurements, because when your old apartment is featured in stories like this, they tend not to have very good layout archives available.)
There was one shelf, along the wall with the plywood. I try to remember what was on it, but I can’t. Books, most likely. I think there was a fan, for when it got hot. I know I had a plastic drawer that I called my despair drawer. It had homework and papers on top, and underneath, a cigarette, a rope, some broken glass – classic and useful symbols of my teenaged desperation. I used the glass the most.
The room had no windows. I sometimes took seeds from fruit and tried to grow things in there. Nothing lived because all living things need sunlight and we weren’t getting any.
Let me be clear: I understand that, in the world at large, lots of people, heck, even families, live in 6×8 rooms. I get that. If there had been no other choice, it may not have fussed me over much. But there was an empty room being used as a den. Instead of putting me in the den (which had windows) they put me in the pantry. I choose to be bitter about that.
Unlike in Room the book/movie, I was able to go to school. Sometimes to church (though church was social for me, therefor it could be taken away if I disobeyed.) I did horribly in school and most teachers mourned that I wasn’t living up to my potential.
I wasn’t. I’m still not.
Things the book got very, very right about living in a small, externally-imposed space:
Things the book got right: Books make all the difference.
Boredom. I loved the boredom in the book. I taped a locker mirror up under the shelves over my table-bed. I would lie on my back on my table-bed and stare at my own face without blinking until my eyes took to playing tricks. My face would morph and mush and sometimes I would look like other people. I would pretend those were my past lives and I’d write stories about them. I read a lot. Thank all that’s good that I had a school library card. I read so many books, sometimes two a night. I’d read and ignore my homework.
Adaptation. In a small space, you make it work. There was almost no floor space in my room, so I did most activities on the table-bed. I’ve already mentioned my privacy hiding space. To do homework, I pushed up the mattress and pulled a box out from under the table-bed and voila! A desk! To lock my door (which, of course, had no lock) I sat with my back against it and pressed my feet up against the shelf, which pressed up against the table-bed. Unless they could break my legs, no one was getting in.
Normalization. I still like small spaces. Sometimes I sleep on the couch, because being pressed up against the back makes it feel small and cosy. I pile a nest of pillows and I feel safe.
All of these ideas come up in the book in a way the movie missed. Everything happened too fast in the film. Everything was way, way too easy. He learned steps in moments, while in the book he butt-bumped down them for weeks. The first trip outside in the book is a trauma, while in the movie, he skips along like he totally has seen grass before. The breast feeding was treated as a throw-away in the movie, while in the book, it was dwelled on. Literally, main character Jack had to accept that he couldn’t get sustenance (physical and emotional) from one person (Ma) any more. And she couldn’t give it. The de-normalization of that idea was like a one-two gut punch. Saying goodbye to the thing that sustained him because the world is bigger now? That’s beautiful. Skipping that entire story (save three small moments) because breast-feeding icks out American audiences and full-term feeding even more-so? Dirty pool, old man!
Maybe, as much as I was frustrated at the movie, I was even more frustrated at the audience. There were times I wanted to stand up and shout, “You’re emoting all wrong!” The cheesy music didn’t help. It basically told them when to feel, much like a laugh track tells you when to laugh, even when it’s not funny.
There were moments that gutted me. When the kid cracks a joke, you don’t laugh! That shit is poignant, not funny!
Watching this film with an audience made me feel like our lives, our trauma, are entertainment. And they were entertained in a way that told me that they just don’t get it. Maybe I don’t hate Room, the movie. Maybe I hate how very isolated the reaction of the audience made me feel. When they oohed and aahed and giggled as instructed, I sat silent. I even moved seats away from a woman who hit every emotional cue like she’d been paid by the producers just to feel in public.
I wanted to stop the film and give a master class in empathy. I wanted to take Lenny Abrahamson and Emma Donoghue and Brie Larson and the entire audience at the Varsity Cinema and be all like:
In the end, Room the book is the sort of starter guide that abused kids stumble across that gives them some idea that they are not alone. It touched me on that level, because kid-me has not matured past needing that yet. Still, as I got older, I moved on to biographies and stories that were true and featured honest semi-survivors and finally on to telling my own stories, because no one but me will ever get me right.
The movie wasn’t even that. The movie was a lifetime movie of the week that dipped vicariously in to our suffering and painted it on a pretty canvas. I am not a film critic. I am not a book critic. I am a girl who lived in a room and I did not like this film.
Now if anyone wants me, I’ll be in my room.