In Hollywood we’ve heard horror stories about authors with enough clout, they forbade filmmakers from changing anything in adapting their works. Room is the opposite story, one in which the author not only embraced the adaptation, she wrote it herself and made liberal changes to her own source material.
I got to speak with Emma Donoghue by phone about Room. Lenny Abrahamson directs Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as Ma and Jack, a mother and son confined to a single room by a kidnapper. There are some spoilers in our discussion, but only things the filmmakers agreed to reveal in trailers. Room is now playing in select cities and opens wide Friday, November 6.
Nerd Report: As the screenwriter of your own adaptation, did you really embrace the process of adapting your book?
Emma Donoghue: I loved it. It’s unusual for the filmmakers to have to let the writer in to that extent, but I think we all ended up really enjoying ourselves. Also because Lenny is very bookish himself and he has such a passion for this novel, it never felt as if I was arguing for keeping it like the book and he was arguing to make it into a movie. It was always that the two of us were fumbling our way towards a kind of shared vision of how you would make a film that was very cinematic but was an equivalent of whatever sort of magic trick the book did. For instance, I would sometimes change things and he would say, “No, no, let’s go back to the book.” So it didn’t feel like the usual kind of oppositional argument. It felt like an enormously fruitful relationship. I would say I learned so much about screenwriting from him.
Nerd Report: Did it allow you to explore any of the themes differently in the screenplay than you did in the book?
Emma Donoghue: Definitely. For instance, in the book, the real technical challenge was that Ma is only seen through Jack’s eyes and of course she misleads him. She puts on a brave face for him and she misleads him about things. Often, she comes across as this archetype of strength and nourishment instead of as a real flawed human being. In the film, Ma gets to really step center stage and I see the film as a real two hander. So I think that’s going to be hugely satisfying to people who enjoyed the book but were left crafting more about Ma. Those fans often write to me directly begging for a book in which Ma will tell the whole story again from her point of view. So I think I’ll really get those fans off my back by saying, “Look, here’s a movie.” Brie so embodies Ma, I think it’s a wonderful supplement to the book. Another difference is that in the film, because in the second half we really had to streamline a lot of the action so that the storyline wouldn’t be dissipated too much. For instance, in the book, there’s all sorts of little bits of social commentary. Jack meets his grandmother’s book club. He goes to a play and he goes to a gallery. We didn’t want the film to take on that kind of rhythm. We really wanted to stick to Ma and Jack’s story. This actually has one benefit. Joan Allen’s character really comes into focus because there’s less other stuff going on, so you focus so much on these two mothers, Ma and her own mother, and how each of them has lost and how each of them has to now put together a newly configured family. So yes, everything we changed, I feel was an interesting difference. I think in many ways the film does things that the book couldn’t.
Nerd Report: Was there a simple or complicated reason for eliminating the little bit about her previous pregnancy while in Room?
Emma Donoghue: We only cut that pretty late on. I think that’s an example of how a book makes room for a lot of backstory whereas in a film, when you’ve got that forward momentum of moving on towards a hopeful ending, it felt as if bringing in the stillbirth story at that point would be too much of a harking back, too much making it tragic all over again. That was one of those things that I was sad it had to go but I could quite see why it did have to.
Nerd Report: The movie really captures Jack’s point of view beautifully. Was it difficult to adapt his point of view from the pages to the screenplay?
Emma Donoghue: Not really. I stuck to the same kind of rule as the book in that basically everything we see is something Jack sees. Of course, in the book I’m using first person narration so that’s very different, but the camera offers some wonderful equivalents to that. The camera has kind of a double quality. Yes, it shows us what Jack sees and how he sees it, but then the camera also casts a kind of cold eye on things too. You see all the grubby ugly aspects of Room that Jack doesn’t see himself. Of course you get to see Jack’s face too, so there’s a wonderful multiplicity of positions in there. Even though every scene is something Jack is in, something he sees, you still get information that Jack doesn’t have in his head. It’s a bit broader than in the book.
Nerd Report: You really captured the kind of unconditional love a child can have, and that’s not the type of child we usually see in movies. Movies usually have the precocious kid, but I know a lot of children like Jack in my own life. Was that important for you to capture?
Emma Donoghue: I’m so aware that there are not enough great roles for kids out there because so often they are featured as the smart kid or the foul mouthed kid or else in some really obvious and sentimental way. I think it’s so wonderful to see Jake in this role because it’s a kid who’s really getting to show that full range of emotions, the kind of wonderful ambiguity and unpredictability of children too. You don’t always know what’s going through his mind and in the book you do because the book is giving you every thought of his. I like that unspelled out aspect of film. There are lots of moments where you don’t quite know what’s going on for Jack and you have to project your own emotions onto that and remember your own childhood. So yeah, it’s absolutely wonderful to see a film that centers on a child and in a way that tried to capture the child mind for all of us. It puts all of us in that space. Certainly in making the film we had to do a lot of seeing things through a child’s eyes. For instance, that meant that the Room was never boring because to Jack it’s full of little worlds. The bath is a different space from under the bed and from the wardrobe. I think getting in touch with our child minds really helped.
Nerd Report: Even to the point he loves inanimate objects the way kids really love everything?
Emma Donoghue: When I was researching the book, there’ve been so few of these kidnapping cases with children, only a tiny handful. So I looked at a lot of other situations in which children are growing up in strange situations. Children have this amazing kind of pragmatism. They just work with the rules they are assigned. Whether the rule is “we don’t use those verbs if we’re around women” or “you always have to wear a wig.” Whatever the arbitrary rules are of your social or cultural group, kids just work with that and get on with it and don’t wonder why. I just saw Jack as an extreme version of that. He just accepted the terms he lived on and he finds all sorts of company and pleasure in what other people would see as a prison cell.
Nerd Report: I’m sure readers and viewers have their own reaction to the interview scene. Maybe mine comes from a place of being a journalist myself, but when she asks, “Did you ever consider asking Nick to take the baby to the hospital,” I thought, “Oh yeah, because your kidnapper is so trustworthy you can count on him to deliver the baby to the hospital.”
Emma Donoghue: [Laughs] Good point, but one reason I put that mention in the book and in the film is that there is a Russian case where a guy kept two young women and there were several pregnancies. In each case, he did bring the baby to the hospital. So as soon as I read about that case, I thought, “Oh my God, that’s one way it could’ve gone.” Or in the case of Elisabeth Fritzl, for instance, she asked her captor, who was also her father, to bring some of the children upstairs and have his wife, her mother raise them. Just the notion of that kind of sacrificial gesture, whether it would’ve worked or not, I thought that was a wonderful, disturbing idea to introduce at that point in Ma’s storyline. The idea that instead of pouring all her energy into raising Jack that maybe what she should have done was have him raised away from her. I thought that would be a wonderfully unbearable line for her to hear in that particular moment.
Nerd Report: It’s totally believable a reporter would ask that, and she’s blindsided by the question so she doesn’t have the presence I may have to throw it back in her face.
Emma Donoghue: Yeah, yeah.
Nerd Report: Do you have any mixed feelings about the trailers showing things after Room in the story?
Emma Donoghue: I think it’s simply a fact that trailers give away almost all the plot nowadays. That’s just how they are. And also in this particular place I sometimes forget how dark the premise of this story is. Some people are quick to assume the film will be horrifying or depressing, so I can see why A24 has decided to really emphasize that it’s a love story and that it’s uplifting. In both the poster, for instance, and in the clips they’re making available and in the trailer, I can see why they’re really working to get the message out that this is quite a radiant film. It’s just the thing with book blurbs. Writers would usually prefer not to have any information on the blurb because we write our books as machines for gradual revelation. We prefer you all not to know a thing about them, but of course to persuade you to read our books, we have to give you some information. It’s always a little bit of a dance.
Nerd Report: And the point of Room isn’t the plot twists, it’s how the characters react to situations.
Emma Donoghue: Exactly.
Nerd Report: Are you now warmed to the idea of adapting other books for film?
Emma Donoghue: I’m very keen to adapt others for film. They’re not all filmable. Fiction has room for all sorts of storylines and they don’t all work on film. Not that I’m assuming that would always happen to my work, but I would love to do it again and I would love to adapt other people’s work and to write original screenpalys. I’ve definitely been bitten by the bug.
Nerd Report: When you watch films based on books you’ve read, are you really sensitive to the adaptation?
Emma Donoghue: I am and sometimes it’s so hard to put your finger on what goes wrong. A book I loved, The Time Traveler’s Wife, I watched the movie expecting to love it and somehow I felt none of the magic had been captured. That one really made me realize that it’s not about how close it is to the book. It’s all about the indefinable transmission of the magic.
Nerd Report: What do you think are the most successful adaptations?
Emma Donoghue: The ones that often spring to mind for me are adaptations of short stories where there’s lots of room to expand. Something like Brokeback Mountain I think is the kind of model. I think Nick Hornby does some extraordinary adaptations. I haven’t seen Brooklyn yet but I think he’s got a really delicate touch with something like An Education for instance.
Nerd Report: How pleased were you to see the escape sequence captured on film?
Emma Donoghue: The funny thing is, before they filmed it, I was really nervous. When you write something, it has to be plausible on the page but that’s not the same as seeing it acted out. So I was fundamentally worried about the plausibility of Ma spending seven years in that room. Especially when I first went on set, I was thinking, “Oh my God, it’s so small. How could she bear to live here?” But equally, the escape, in the book it’s a really a literary tradition of fake deaths which work as a wonderfully symbolic kind of death and rebirth. To make it plausible at the level of a truck driving along is a different thing. So I was hugely nervous and I’m thrilled with what they’ve done with it. I think it’s just a heart-poundingly exciting scene. I’ve seen the movie six or seven times now and I’m trying now to look at technical aspects I wouldn’t have noticed before. Last time I saw it, I thought, “I’m going to pay attention to sound editing,” but after about 10 minutes I was all caught up in the story again.
Nerd Report: The sound design is great. It keeps some of the adult conversations out of earshot. Did you notice things like that?
Emma Donoghue: No, I don’t have a well trained enough ear I’m afraid. For instance, Lenny was complaining the other day that cinemas often play movies too quietly because they don’t want any sound to leak into the corridor. He was saying at festivals it’s wonderful how they rack it up and let the sound be as big as it needs to be.