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“Room” Scribe Emma Donoghue On Writing A Cinematic Novel And A Literary Movie

The harrowing Oscar contender, Room, is author Emma Donoghue’s first screenplay. Here she talks about why she had to write it herself.

“Room” Scribe Emma Donoghue On Writing A Cinematic Novel And A Literary Movie
[Photos: George Kraychyk, courtesy of A24]

The uniquely claustrophobic, fixed-POV nail-biter, Room, is Emma Donoghue’s seventh novel, but it was the first she was determined to make into a film. Fortunately for both filmgoers and fans of the book, she was also determined to make it on her own terms.

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“I knew from the start,” she says. “It was very much a novel first, but then I also knew this could be a great film, because of the peculiar child’s perspective and the limited setting during [a spoiler-y length of screentime]. But it just had to be the perfect director and the perfect child actor and I had to write the screenplay myself.”

Emma Donoghue

Room is the harrowing tale of a young boy named Jack whose entire universe is shrunk down to the size of a tiny room, which he shares with Ma. This room, and the objects contained within, is all that he knows. It’s all he’s ever known. As the novel progresses, readers learn the terrible truth behind the circumstances of Jack’s situation. The revelations arrive before they are explained directly to Jack, since readers are able to parse information that Jack is too small to understand and decipher meaning from them. The book is the ultimate statement of parenthood can sometimes feel like a prison—both for the parent and the child. It’s a high-concept read, and one that was bound to be tricky to pull off in a film.

In order to better ensure that she would be the one doing the adapting, Donoghue began turning Room into a screenplay while she was still writing the original manuscript.

“I started as soon as the novel was sold,” she says. “There’s always about a year where you’re sitting around, waiting for the book to be published. And I thought, ‘I’ll finish the screenplay now before anyone can tell me not to.’ Because I knew once the book was published, I had a feeling there’d be interest, but I thought people would want to give it an experienced screenwriter. So I just thought I’d go ahead while I was still in that lovely private zone of nobody telling me what to do.”

Having a completed draft of the screenplay by the time there was interest in adaptation helped Donoghue with negotiations. Instead of pleading her case to be given a shot as a first-time screenwriter, she was able to merely pass along her script when the time came. The powers that be were sufficiently impressed with it. If there’s a main reason, however, why the novel came out in 2010 and the film adaptation is only coming out now, it’s because it took a long time to find the right director.

“I was saying no, no, no in all directions,” Donoghue says. “My partner actually said to me at one point, ‘Are you gonna say no forever?’ And I though that would be fine. I did not want a bad film made of this.”

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The novelist and accomplished playwright reached out to some filmmakers, and others reached out to her, but there was never a perfect fit until Lenny Abrahamson reached out personally with a 10-page letter, explaining why he was the one for the job. He explained in broad strokes why he was drawn to the material, and he also got into specifics about the camera angle in certain scenes. But most importantly, Abrahamson understood what was special about the structure of the novel and shared Donoghue’s enthusiasm for preserving it. Switching the story to Ma’s point of view would be too bland; strapping a GoPro on Jack’s forehead to faithfully recreate his perspective would be too gimmicky. Creating the proper narrative style would require nuance.

Once the director fully explained his vision for how he would make the film, the writer was eager to help him execute it. Working with a film director proved to be a completely different experience, though, than working with a book editor or the director of a play.

“In literary fiction, an editor is usually very sparing with how they exert their power, they don’t want to make your book like every other book so they’re usually terribly respectful,” Donoghue says. “Whereas what’s totally different here is that a film is a director’s film and you’re just contributing to it. You’re important, especially if you’ve written the novel as well, but it’s the director’s film and you have to respect that.”

She adds, “The first draft of a book is a complete thing. It may still need work, but it is a book. The first draft of a screenplay is just the first version of a blueprint that feels utterly unfinished and tentative and searching, and it’s just one of the elements that a director makes a film with.”

Now that Abrahamson was on board, Donoghue got swept up in the idea of translating her story into a visual medium. She would finally be able to show Ma directly to fans of the novel. They would be able to see what Jack sees through their own eyes as well, not just inferring from his limited descriptions. They would also, of course, be able to see Jack himself, as embodied by now-nine-year-old newcomer Jacob Tremblay, selected from the literally hundreds of young actors the team considered. (Brie Larson also turns in a real gut-punch of a performance as Ma, one that is bound to attract Academy attention.)

It was only in working on the film, though, that Donoghue began to realize and appreciate how many image-based decisions are involved in the process.

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“I found it fascinating to interview everyone on set and see what they contribute,” she says.

She would talk with the costume designer and learn what seemingly tiny unobtrusive costume choices for a character would communicate to the audience. She would talk with the set director and discover that every single object in the titular room told its own little story.

As for the overall story, Donoghue and Abrahamson agreed on solutions for translating the particular energy of the book into a film. They kept a relatively straightforward hold on the child’s perspective, without resorting to flashbacks for relaying exposition, or fantasy sequences for showing more of how Jack sees the world. In fact, most of the changes from the novel had to do with condensing.

“In a novel, there’s time for everything,” Donoghue says. “In fiction, you can have a three line mention of something a child does—they go to a theater and they go to the mall, they go to the supermarket. In film, there is less time and you can’t lose your focus in the same way. So we found we really stripped away a lot of elements later in the film. We streamlined and trimmed down parts. Compared with most film adaptations I’ve seen, though, we hardly messed with this book at all.”