Imagine if your entire life was spent inside one room. You can never go into the outside world - in fact, you believe there is no outside world. That scenario is the plot of Emma Donoghue's 2010 novel "Room," which has now been made into a movie of the same name.
The film, also written by Donoghue, stars Brie Larson as a young mother who has spent seven years of her life inside "room" since she was kidnapped. The story is told from the perspective of her 5-year-old son Jack, played by newcomer Jacob Tremblay.
"Room," which sparked a lot of attention at the Toronto Film Festival where it won the People's Choice Award, comes out in limited release October 16.
Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson speaks with Donoghue about her experience writing the novel and adapting it to film, and what the dark environment of the film reveals about human resilience, frailty and the bond of a mother and her child.
On the emotional roller coaster of the film
“I suppose because the storyline is so strange and unusual, I mean who has ever grown up in a locked room? I think viewers bring their own storylines to it, and people think about their children, their childhoods, and the way everybody’s childhood is still kind of a lost country to them – it’s still a small peculiar world they have these vivid memories of and that they have to leave some time.
Why did you want to tell the story?
“I had small children and my mind was full of thoughts about parenting, and how it breaks you down and remakes you, but I didn’t have a storyline about that. I couldn’t just write about, you know, ‘happy author has children.’ So when I heard about one of these kidnapping cases, it happened to be the Austrian case of the Fritzl family, I thought that sort of premise would be a great way to put parenting in the spotlight and to really focus on the mother-child bond and to test it against everything else. We’ve had a lot of storylines about whether one romantic love, one grand passion, could be set against the whole world, but I wanted to do the same thing for the love between a parent and a child.”
How did you get inside the mind of a little kid?
“I cheated - I had one. My son was 4 years old when I was drafting the book. I tested out a climactic sequence involving a child being rolled up in a rug, I tried that out with my son, bribing him with a chocolate bar. So yeah I put a huge amount of my children into this film. Actually, when I showed it to them the other day, skipping over the scary scenes, each of them started making choo-choo gestures in the air whenever they recognized a bit that they had inspired.”
Did the Cleveland kidnappings that occurred later affect the film?
“In a way I’ve always tried to find a kind of much older archetypal pattern in the story. It’s not about the details of a crime, it’s about much older stories, like that of Rapunzel, the idea of the walled up girl who gets pregnant and gives birth to the hero child. So I always wanted it to have really long cultural roots. I also wanted it to feel like an extreme version of how we all grew up. We all have that moment where we go back to our primary school or childhood home and thinking, ‘has it shrunk?’ There’s a weird gap between our childhood experience and our adult experience, and between what a kid knows and what an adult knows. And I think one reason people are responding so strongly to the movie is that in fact it does have these very universal elements.”
What about the kidnapper – is he pure evil, or is he human to you?
“He’s human but he’s part of a long tradition of what Hannah Arendt called the ‘banality of evil.’ When I was thinking about Old Nick I didn’t focus on sexual psychopathology, I thought of him sort of as the slave owner who thinks he owns humans, the wife beater who thinks he owns his family, the Nazi camp guards who went home to their families at the end of the day. I think what’s the most chilling about Old Nick as a character is that he generally thinks he’s a pretty good guy who’s given this woman quite a comfortable set up. At one point he says to her, ‘who do you think pays the power bills, it’s me.’ It’s just traditional smug patriarchy at its worst, he just thinks he owns this woman and this child.
What about victims who survive, and then have a hard time with life?
“I think children in particular have an amazing ability to pragmatically work with what they’re given, either if it’s violent parents or an incredibly impoverished home life. And the other side of that pragmatism is that, of course, they get fond of what they know. I remember, when I was researching the book, reading a blog by a woman who had fostered and then adopted a child and she said the first night she went to get this child he clung to his violent parents, he didn’t want to go with this nice new foster parent, he wanted what he knew. So, kids have this amazing loyalty, and I thought it would be very interesting to explore the mindset of this child who grew up in this locked room that the world sees as a hell-hole but all he remembers was that he felt safe there with his mother. Children just want our love above all things, so there’s this endless negotiation of what the adult wants and the much simpler, more direct primal needs of the child.”
This segment aired on October 15, 2015.
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