We Are the Room

Paste talks to author Emma Donoghue about adapting her novel Room for the big screen.

Books Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin

It’s only October and Room, the latest film from Irish director Lenny Abrahamson, is already the subject of much Oscar buzzing and hyping. If the chatter feels premature, it’s only because of the film’s recent win at the Toronto International Film Festival, where TIFF-goers bestowed it with the coveted People’s Choice Award; six out of the last seven pictures that have won that accolade have enjoyed subsequent Best Picture nominations by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences (though among those, only half actually went on to that top prize). So, in short, it’s a good time to be Emma Donoghue, author of Room’s screenplay as well as the 2010 Man Booker Prize nominated book on which it’s based.

In Room, Joy (Brie Larson) and her son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) live life confined within a nondescript garden shed situated in the backyard of a nondescript home in a quiet suburban neighborhood. Every day is more or less the same to them, though Joy bides her time and looks for ways to free them both from their captivity—until they’re freed, which is when the film completely changes.

So what moves a writer to return to one of their past works, particularly a work with a basic conceit as somber as Room’s? The book, after all, finds its roots in the real-life case of Elisabeth Fritzl, whose father held her in captivity in a hidden corridor in his basement for 24 years until a series of unexpected circumstances led to her discovery in April of 2008. Can a writer find new inspiration in material they’ve already felt their way through once before?

When Donoghue made a stop in Boston on her press tour for the film, Paste had the chance to talk about why Room was worth revisiting, as well as her new experiences in the movie industry, and the importance of the parent-child bond.

(Warning: Some spoilers ahead.)

Paste: At what point did you become involved with writing the screenplay for the film?
Emma Donoghue: Right after I sold the novel.
Paste: Really?
Donoghue: It was to be about a year before it was published, and I got [the] instinct that it would make a good film despite its peculiarities. And so I thought, “I’ll just write the script! Without consulting anyone, without asking anyone, without waiting for anyone to give me permission, without waiting for anyone to hire me!” It’s not that I was going to insist on being the writer, it’s just that I wanted to be able to say to, you know, the director of my dreams, “Here we go, here’s my first draft, can we work together?” Because, you know, I didn’t want to try and force them to hire me just because I’m the novelist, and I had heard that sometimes studios hire the novelist for the first draft just to sort of fob them off, you know? I wasn’t looking for that. I wanted to be truly involved. So yeah, I went ahead and drafted it, and then when I finally started working with Lenny [Abrahamson], we started with my script and then improved it, basically, with his help. I learned so much from him over an extended period.

Paste: Was he the director of your dreams?
Donoghue: He was! And the funny thing was, I had assumed that the director of my dreams would need to have a bigger name, not out of snobbery, but just in order to get the funding we needed, you know?
Paste: Sure, yeah.
Donoghue: And really it turned out we didn’t. And of course, Lenny was getting better known all over the period we were working together, as well. But he absolutely is the director of my dreams, because he’s very literary. He had a huge appreciation of the book, and at many points when I would make some change, he’d say, “You know what? Let’s go back to the book.” He was unafraid of things like the child having long hair, and the two-part structure, and he worked very kindly and gently with me, I would say. He never blinded me with film jargon, you know? He didn’t emphasize my ignorance at all. He talked a lot about the rhythm of sequences and so on, and we sort of felt our way through the material rather than him saying, “Where’s the climax?” (Laughs.)

And he was enormously direct and generous to work with. I didn’t have to go through any intermediaries, you know. [A24] really allowed me a very one-to-one working relationship with him, and we sort of kept the circle small. There weren’t lots and lots of people giving notes on the script at every point. It was very much that I was writing this for Lenny. So I found that a wonderful way to work, especially since I’m so new to the business.

Paste: Was that a great concern of yours, that there would be a lot of outside influence? That it wouldn’t just be you and Lenny?
Donoghue: Oh yeah, yeah. I’d heard a lot of bad stories about studios who completely changed the storyline, or say they’ll cast one kind of director and then…
Paste: ...they cast another.
Donoghue: Yeah, or, you know, test screenings where they completely change the ending.
Paste: (Laughs.) Yeah, I know all about those. I’m glad you were able to avoid that, and I’m happy you had a good experience with it.
Donoghue: A great experience! I keep saying to myself, “This cannot be representative of writers’ experiences in the film business!”
Paste: I think you’re probably in like, the top 11% of lucky people…
Donoghue: I’ve used up all my luck! (Laughs.)

Paste: So what about Room specifically—because it sounds like you knew right away that you wanted to turn this into a movie—what specifically called out to you and said, “Adapt me, I could be a film”?
Donoghue: The child’s perspective, I think, because, you know, in a way, the actual events described in Room, they come up a lot in crime stories. So it’s not the events that are special or even the, you know, the portrait of a family recovering from a trauma. We’ve all seen those elements before. I think anchoring it in the point of view of a five-year-old does give it an original spin. But also, in terms of my work, in several of my previous novels, people have made attempts to film them, and they never got very far. I think Room has a stronger story than any of them. It’s got a lot of narrative drive. It might be sort of at the micro level—you know, small boy finding out what’s real and what’s not in his tiny world—but still, it moves forward. It has momentum.

Paste: Did you find it a challenge to write a screenplay that’s largely rooted in the child’s perspective? We really see the whole novel, everything that happens, through his point of view.
Donoghue: It’s true. I think turning any novel into a screenplay would be a challenge. It didn’t feel particularly hard. I sort of trusted that the camera would work in an equivalent way to the grammar of the novel, you know? And of course it’s always a little bit broader, because you see Jack, and then you see what Jack sees, so the camera always gives you that slightly double perspective, and we didn’t want to use any gimmicks like attaching the camera to his head or anything. And also, I welcomed that the perspective would broaden out a bit, because I knew Jack would be in every scene, but the camera would show us Ma just as directly as it would show us Jack. I wouldn’t say it’s a flaw in the novel, but it’s a fact about the novel that, because we’re absolutely inside Jack’s head, we can’t show Ma except through how he sees her, and of course he sees her in a very biased way because she’s gone out of her way to make sure he doesn’t notice her pain very much. So in the book, some readers miss some of those hints, and then they’re outraged when she falls apart in the second half, because they didn’t see it coming. So in the film, I thought, “We have to show her more directly from the start so she’ll be a more understandable character.”

Paste: I’m always curious about authors who choose to adapt their own work for cinema. Why revisit work you’ve already written…
Donoghue: …and some people don’t like to. A very interesting example is Nick Hornby, who adapts other people’s novels rather than his own, so he does both things really well, but he says, “You put it all in, so why would you take it all out?” It’s a process that doesn’t appeal to him. In this case, I don’t know, I didn’t really feel like I was taking it out again. The story was still fresh in my mind, so I didn’t have that feeling of, “Oh, that’s old news for me,” you know? And I just had enormous enthusiasm for seeing how I could tell that story again using different tools. I think cinema just has a lot of powers that [literature] doesn’t have, and vice versa, so I was just curious to retell the story.

Paste: And it’s interesting, just changing mediums lets you open things up in bigger ways. As you were saying, with Ma, or Joy, we get to see a lot more of her. Was Brie Larson really who you expected Ma to be when she got involved?
Donoghue: She was even better.
Paste: I agree. I thought she was tremendous.
Donoghue: Oh, the intelligence and the depth she brought to this, the intense preparation…and yet she wasn’t remotely precious to deal with on set. She was really down to Earth, and not just with her child co-star but with all of us. She was immensely likeable and hardworking and well-mannered. Really, there was nothing of the diva about her. One thing I really appreciate is the range she’s got. So even within one scene, she’ll be flickering back and forth from strained and tense right through to moments of humor, moments of warmth, and then tension comes through again. Oh, I now can’t imagine anyone else playing the role.
Paste: The scene that comes to mind when you talk about that is when they’re both in Room and they’re screaming at the skylight, and there’s so much going on there, because she’s both expressing her rage, and her frustration, and her helplessness, but she’s also helping Jack do the same, helping him find an outlet at the same time. They must have bonded pretty well, Brie and Jacob Tremblay?
Donoghue: They did. All you can do with a kid is make time and opportunity for bonding to happen, and not force it. So basically, the filmmakers made sure the set was ready three weeks early, when usually we’d only be ready on the day of filming. So they got the set totally ready, and they basically let Brie and Jake play in it every day, and get totally used to the space, and they made most of the crafts, you see. The little boat floating in the toilet and stuff, they made those.
Paste: Oh they did? I love that! That’s a great detail.
Donoghue: Yeah! So they put the time in, whereas if they only met on the first day of filming, there’s no way that could have happened.

Paste: Were there other themes or ideas that you thought you might try to explore on film versus in the novel, apart from the overarching, central ideas?
Donoghue: I think the fact that the second half gets very streamlined compared to the book—so much is basically cut away, locations, people, and that really shines much more of a light on Grandma. It becomes much more the story of how she welcomes her daughter back and she makes these adjustments. So that’s probably one element that really came forward, yeah. In the book, Grandma is quite a blunderer. There are quite a few comic moments where she sort of gets it wrong with Jack. And somehow, as soon as we cast Joan Allen, that character started getting nobler. (Laughs.) I mean, she’s not perfect, but yeah, I think she really comes into her own in the second half, and we start to see that her difficult task of mothering is, in many ways, just like Ma’s. How do you hold your child, and love them, and give them enough room and enough space?

Paste: People already know the novel, but were you ever concerned that the material might be dark for a mainstream movie-going audience? Did it ever occur to you to soften this?
Donoghue: No, that’s something we never, ever discussed, actually. I mean, we knew that we’d be showing it in such a way that you don’t directly see scenes of rape, for instance, but that’s just from the book. So no, we never wanted to make it sort of softer than it was in the book.

And you know, Lenny’s from the European arthouse tradition, so he’s just not afraid of these things, you know? I remember he said to me really early on, “We will get a mainstream audience for this film, but only if we make it without compromise. We won’t get the audience by courting them. We just have to make the film with such conviction that they will come.” And I think in a way, it’s not that we so much softened it, but I think the marketing that A24 has done is very savvy, because they realize that a lot of people are deeply troubled by this premise, and that they actually need to be wooed and reassured. So for instance, the poster is very upbeat, and the trailer shows a lot of happy moments. I think it’s in the selling of it that we’ve sent out those signals, rather than actually softening the material in the film.

Paste: And I would describe it more as a joyful story than as a grim story, but that first half or so, it’s pretty bleak.
Donoghue: It’s tense, but the actual relationship at the core of it is immensely warm, you know? So it’s not like some film about a lonely, suffering child locked in a cupboard. (Laughs.) I mean, yeah, there are so many films and TV shows that I’ve avoided because of that premise—sort of the abused child, the lonely child—and this is not one of them.

Paste: You mentioned A24: Were you familiar with them before you got involved with Room at all?
Donoghue: No, no, I knew so little about the film business. I never knew that film distributors got involved in this way, by investing their money or anything. I just assumed that a distributor was handed a finished film. The film business is changing so much! I mean, the role of a company like A24, it sort of morphs from distributor into producer. They’re starting to produce their own projects. No, this is all new to me. I didn’t realize how often international co-productions are put together. We got some money from Ireland, some from England, some from Canada, and the American distributor. So it was a very well put together package, which meant that at no point did we have to go begging to some big studio to take on the whole project. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t have known any of this before we began. I think I had quite clichéd ideas about how the film business works.
Paste: I’m very excited by A24, especially to see that they’ve picked this movie up. I think they’re already treating it very well.
Donoghue: And they’re very smart about social media and so on.

Paste: That’s younger companies for you, I guess! So I know that you based this, and I’m totally going to screw up the last name, on a real case…
Donoghue: The Fritzls, from Austria.
Paste: The Fritzls! Okay, right.
Donoghue: But you know, they’re very different. So all I took from them was the idea of a child being born into a kidnap situation, which has, of course, since come up in several other settings in America. My original inspiration was an Austrian case, and also I looked closely at some other European kidnapping cases where there wasn’t a child involved.
Paste: Does most of your inspiration comes from real life, even from real life that’s as grim as the Fritzl case?
Donoghue: Do you know, Room is the only time contemporary headlines have provoked something, but usually I would say that my contemporary material is inspired by stuff in my own life and my friends’ lives, whereas I’ve written a lot about real cases from the past. So, I would say, you know, the headlines from the 18th or 19th century have often inspired me, but modern news has never sort of struck a chord with me before, so this was the first time. And I have to say, you know, there’s something about it that makes me reluctant to do it again. (Laughs.) Because if your novel can be linked in any way to a real case, people just obsess over it. Room got reviewed as “the Fritzl novel,” when it was in no way about that case.
Paste: Right.
Donoghue: So I probably should have lied about it. “No, no, never heard of it!”
Paste: “I totally made this up. It’s all me!”
Donoghue: But you know, the first time you’re having interactions with the media, which in my case would have been at about 23 with my first novel, you sort of decide on your persona, right? And I just, I have no secrets. I’m very direct. So the idea of hiding my inspiration didn’t really occur to me. Lies are more complicated!

Paste: They absolutely are. So apart from the Fritzl case, what influenced you while you were writing your book?
Donoghue: Cormac McCarthy’s novel The Road.
Paste: That’s a fantastic novel.
Donoghue: Blew me away. And it struck me as having contemporary material, but the force of a myth, you know, a father-son myth. And I thought, “What would a mother-child story be that would be as archetypal as that?” I thought, “It’s got to be about containment, and then escape,” you know? Because we definitely keep our babies close to the skin at first, and we have to gradually let them out. (Laughs.) We are the Room!
Paste: I can see the comparison now that you mention it, because I’ve read The Road, and there’s maybe not a similarity but a kinship between the way that Jack thinks through his world and the way that McCarthy’s novel is narrated.
Donoghue: Yeah! And each of them sees a parent’s love for a child as something redemptive that will get us through the darkest situations. When you think how much energy has been put into celebrating romantic love between one man, one woman, I think the parent-child bond is really just as big and powerful. It comes up in a lot of stories, but in a more light or banal way, you know?
Paste: I agree, and it’s refreshing to see a movie that’s about that deep bond of love that isn’t romantic in any way.
Donoghue: Here’s another one: We Need to Talk About Kevin. That novel, too. It’s far more grim about the parent-child bond, but it takes an extreme situation from the headlines and uses it to focus our mind on the parent-child bond in the same way. I love that book.
Paste: They made that into a movie too!
Donoghue: Yes they did. Tilda Swinton was very wonderful in it.
Paste: What a fantastic movie. I haven’t read the book…
Donoghue: It’s a great book, and, again, a very funny book. It’s got a lot of dark humor in it.

Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing online about film since 2009, and has contributed to Paste Magazine since 2013. He also writes for Screen Rant, Movie Mezzanine and Birth.Movies.Death. You can follow him on Twitter. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.