Ferocity and Velocity:
From Book to Film
By Miriam R. Kramer
Many books are optioned for screenplays, and few make it to the big screen. Even fewer get nominated for prestigious film awards. Room, by Emma Donoghue, and The Revenant, by Michael Punke, are two of those works, recently made popular once more by their adaptation into nominees for Best Picture at the 2016 Oscars. Room was nominated for Best Picture-Drama and won a Best Actress award for Brie Larson at the Golden Globes, while The Revenant won Best Actor for Leonardo di Caprio and and Best Picture-Drama at the Golden Globes. Both are nominated for Best Picture and Best Acting Oscars this year as well. Yet do the novels themselves deserve such accolades?
Gertrude Stein once implied in the short, classic book Picasso that one secret to his mastery of Cubism was that he saw as a very young child saw, in bits and pieces that connected in a way that might not make sense to an adult. The average adult has already established a kind of visual shorthand for filling in gaps and thereby assumed stereotypes, normal images, and knee-jerk responses, even when there is much more to be seen. Emma Donoghue deftly employs this more Picasso-like point of view in writing Room in the narrative voice of a five-year-old boy. He describes both his mother and his highly circumscribed life with her in an 11” x 11” sealed room in a way that makes us hearken back to children’s ways of judging and measuring their worlds.
Room is the most disturbing book I have read in many moons. Its dramatic immediacy, suspense, and aspects of a horror novel affect a reader viscerally, although that is not the way Jack, the young narrator, interprets the actions contained in a seemingly mundane setting. Only those adults reading the book can see such qualities. The innocence of Jack’s vision is a filter to help make those qualities palatable enough not only for a reader but also for him and even his mother to endure.
Slowly, by putting Jack’s pieces together, the reader realizes that his mother has been captured by a sociopath who has kept her locked up for seven years, during which she has given birth to son Jack, just barely five years old. She keeps Jack away from her captor in the late evenings when he visits by sending Jack to sleep in Wardrobe, which may be a reference to the magic Wardrobe in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, which whisks children away from boredom and into a land of adventure.
Jack mostly sees the fun in the routines and imaginative play established religiously by his long-traumatized mother, whose love for him shines in everything she does, including most of her moments of despair, anger, and irritation. Jack’s whole life has been spent in Room, where he knows Rug, Table, Bed, and other objects as if they are his playthings and friends. Images on TV seem more real than could be imagined for a child who has never seen more than two other people. His childhood joy in their games, stories, and songs exists regardless of their circumscribed existence, with food and necessities doled out by the man Jack calls “Old Nick.”
Room’s strength is in portraying the beauty of life as seen through the eyes of a child, and the strength and happiness his mother gains from loving him the best way she knows how. In reality, it is a book about pain, endurance, but most of all the satisfaction that comes with a mother loving her child and doing all she can to ensure his happiness and survival under very severe circumstances. At certain points I was not sure I could read another gut-wrenching page although I could also not wait to do so: such is the paradox of this wonderful, lightning-fast read. I do not think I could say that about any book I have read in recent memory.
Emma Donoghue provides drama, relief, and a redemption that compensates readers for the gut-wrenching terror and claustrophobia they might endure through reading the history between Jack and “Ma,” with appearances from Old Nick. She does not gloss over Ma as a saint or Jack as a completely angelic little boy. Yet she shows heroism in them both when the plot takes unexpected twists. Then they must face fears above and beyond the ones they have come to know from their jailor, and learn whether they can exist in less rigidly proscribed circumstances that may be more unexpectedly terrifying.
Oddly enough, the book comes together in a way that is uplifting rather than despairing. In this way Room is both the most frightening and tender of books. Few will complain of wasting in time in reading this work, which I will watch on screen soon. Fans of Stephen King’s novella Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption and the resulting movie The Shawshank Redemption will probably enjoy Room and some of its overlapping themes.
Michael Punke’s highly touted and gory revenge novel The Revenant contains a completely different premise from Room. Instead of the terror possible in one room, he charts the terror and excitement of the great outdoors of barely charted Western territory and the accompanying adrenaline that makes its inhabitants sign up to explore so-called virgin lands. This is not the clichéd Western of dusty, established saloon towns, prostitutes with hearts of gold, and lonesome cowboys eating beans out of cans with howling coyotes in the distance. It goes straight to a fresher, earlier place in the settling of the American West.
The Revenant covers 1823-4, a time period after the Lewis and Clark expedition and the War of 1812, when multiple fur trapping companies aimed to make their fortunes by using sketchy maps with uncharted edges to travel across the West with pit stops at widely-spaced, rudimentary forts. These travels offered the risk of trappers losing not only stacks of precious beaver hides but also their own hides through encounters with unpredictable Indian warrior tribes and wild animals. Carrying only weapons, basic gear and as much as their easily purloined boats, horses, and mules can carry, a small group of trappers from the Rocky Mountain Fur Company set their course for the Upper Missouri River. They have been hired to help make a fortune for their syndicate’s owner under Captain Andrew Henry and one of his strongest hunters, plainsmen and adventurers, Hugh Glass.
When Glass is ferociously attacked by a furious mother grizzly bear with several cubs, he is nearly killed. Roughly sutured and tended with rudimentary medical care, he swings in and out of consciousness. Two company members volunteer to stay with him for extra pay until he dies from his massive wounds while others go ahead to avoid the perils of being tracked en masse by various Indian tribes. Yet instead of waiting to bury him or leaving him with his weapons, these members, Jim Bridger and Alex Fitgerald, grab his knife, flint and gunpowder, pistol, cherished Anstadt gun, and all other means for staying alive, disappearing into the bush to find their companions. They leave the terribly injured man to fantasize revenge upon his former comrades as he tries to crawl his way to some shelter from all the threats surrounding him.
Thus ensues a bloody story that moves with the speed of a canoe going over a waterfall, revealing its author’s deep research into the history of the everyday equipment and mindsets of that time and place, where adventurous or criminal souls escaping civilization committed themselves to a life of perilous adventure and potential fortune on an almost unknown Western frontier. Through Punke’s meticulous research and careful vocabulary, the misfortunes and successes of the Rocky Mountain Fur Company and its dealings with both Indians and French-Canadian trappers have the ring of truth, as company members with shady or inexperienced pasts slog through rough terrain amid setbacks and hostile receptions from Indians and other American companies. They are unaware that they might be followed by a focused enemy with a scarily powerful will to extract justice outside of a court of law.
Despite its gore and constant suspense, The Revenant as a work was surprisingly not as chilling or emotionally deep as Room, although the idea of facing a mother grizzly bear in the woods would admittedly send me scrambling up a tree. That being said, it does what it does admirably. I found its ending a little anti-climactic but realistic, since the novel is based on a true story with some fictional characters.
For anyone wanting a Western that is a punctiliously well-written, quick read instructing the reader in the mood, atmosphere, and factual advances or setbacks of the earlier Westward expansion, I would recommend this tale of trappers and Indians. While I would pick Room over The Revenant, I will see if my decision regarding the films is different. Happy reading, viewing and enjoying the pomp and ceremony of the Oscars!