Is Room Based on a True Story?

Room’, directed by Lenny Abrahamson, is an independent film that tells a subtle yet powerful story told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack (Jacob Tremblay). His mother, Joy (Brie Larson), was kidnapped and held hostage at the age of seventeen. The movie spans the burdens of victimhood (Joy), the lack of one (Jack), and the struggles of rehabilitation after the trauma of captivity and abuse in a confined space.

Is Room Based on a True Story?

‘Room’ is based on a book (Room) inspired by the real-life case of Elisabeth Fritzl. Emma Donoghue, the author of the book said in an interview: The one line notion of a childhood in a locked room. I got that from the Fritzl case.”

The movie shares many parallels with Elisabeth Fritzl and her children, so much so that it is hard to dismiss the film as complete fiction.

Who is Elisabeth Fritzl?

Elisabeth Fritzl was kidnapped and held hostage by her father at the age of 18 in the basement of her parents’ residence. Josef Fritzl, her father, subjected her to rape and other forms of emotional and physical trauma for 24 years until the case saw light. During her captivity, she gave birth to 7 children. The pregnancies occurred without medical aid. Josef raised three of their children, under the guise that they were abandoned by Elisabeth at his doorstep. His fabricated story was that Elisabeth had run away and joined some cult. The other three children lived with Elisabeth in captivity. Unfortunately, one of her children passed away soon after birth.

When Did People Come to Know?

The whole incident came to light in April 2008, when Elisabeth’s eldest daughter Kerstin fell gravely ill and required immediate medical attention. Josef’s cooked up story sounded fishy to the medical authorities and as a result, he was forced to bring Elisabeth to the hospital. There, she revealed the horror of the abuse of the past 24 years. At the age of 42, Elisabeth took her first step into the outside world along with her children. Birthed and raised in the cellar, her kids were called ‘Cellar Children’. The atrocity led them to undergo therapy and treatment for years before they could slowly immerse themselves into society.

Similarities with Room

Emma Donoghue’s key inspiration is Felix, Elisabeth’s youngest child who was five years old when the incident came to light. Jack, who has also just turned five, is forced to undergo a radical transformation of his entire belief system when he is rushed to the world outside the room. He is simultaneously astonished, scared and curious. He captures the mentality of children who have experienced such captivity. Jack’s reaction to open skies, dogs, space and people tugs at one’s heart. What hurts more is that the basis of this stems not from fiction but reality.

The TV in the film is a window to the reality outside. Jack and his mother spend significant time watching TV… so did Elisabeth and her children. It was their only connection with the world outside. Until the escape plan, Ma tells Jack that everything he sees on TV is not real. Elisabeth had given the same explanation to her children for them to be more acquainted with their reality. In the book titled ‘Monster’, Allan Hall, who has extensively studied ‘dungeon abuse’ writes:

“Elisabeth procured paper and pens from Fritzl and taught the children to read and write. It is known that the children devoured nursery books and coloring books,… In this extraordinary situation any mother would have had a stark choice to make: to tell her children the truth of what happened to her, or make up a story that they could stare in, and so be less curious about the world they had never seen. Elisabeth chose the latter option.”

The Room

Another similarity is the space of captivity. In Elisabeth’s case, it was the basement at her parents’ residence. Josef modified it to make it habitable. The allusion is not lost in ‘Room’, where the first half of the film centers inside the shed where Jack and his mother were held captives. The room, for the victims, is a world within a world, defined by what they make of it. Joy makes it a point to create a routine for themselves. They cook, read, watch TV, and exercise to pass time. More importantly, it’s Joy’s way of creating a life for her son within the confined frame.

Apart from these apparent similarities to the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, it is important to see how the film is a tribute to all victims of ‘dungeon abuse’.This includes everything ranging from the trauma of captivity to liberation, inability to cope, and pain. Though based in fiction, the film’s roots lie in brutal reality.

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