Books

How Emma Donoghue turned her bestselling novel Room into an award-winning film

Emma Donoghue talks about writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Room, which starred Brie Larson.

Room is now streaming on CBC Gem

Emma Donoghue is the author of the novel Room. (Punch Photographic/HarperCollins)

The film Room was one of the biggest movies of 2015. Based on the bestselling novel of the same name by Canadian writer Emma Donoghue, Room is the story of a woman who has been held captive for seven years. Her son Jack is now five and she decides it's time to finally break free. It starred American actor Brie Larson as the mother, "Ma," and Canadian actor Jacob Tremblay as Jack.

Donoghue was involved in the adaptation, and wrote the screenplay for the film, which was directed by Lenny Abrahamson.

Room won the TIFF People's Choice Audience Award. It was nominated for four Oscars, including best adapted screenplay and best picture. Larson won the Oscar for best actress.

Donoghue is the author of several other novels. Her most recent is The Pull of the Stars, which is on the longlist for the 2020 Scotiabank Giller Prize.

Donoguhe spoke to CBC Books in 2015 about what it was like turning Room into a movie.

Room is now streaming on CBC Gem.

Two actors, one room

"Although it has some technical challenges, in that you're locked in a room for the first half, I had a feeling that the actual storyline was one that could carry its own. Until now, none of my books have ever been filmed, so this one, I just had a feeling that the child's point of view and the story might carry it.

"A Few Good Men is all set in a jury room, but the director said in fact he thought of that as five different spaces. You know, he had some scenes set in one part of the room and some scenes set near the window. Similarly with Room, when I was writing scenes, I would set one scene at the bath, one scene at the table, one scene under the bed, one scene on the table, near the skylight. So I saw it as different spaces, and the crucial thing is, Jack doesn't see this as a small room. It's his world. I thought if the camera was smart enough, it could capture that sense of limitless space, of possibility, of magic. 

Jack doesn't see this as a small room. It's his world. I thought if the camera was smart enough, it could capture that sense of limitless space, of possibility, of magic.

"I think you really have to trust the powers of your actors and not add all sorts of bells and whistles to make it interesting. We've all seen big budget films where you just couldn't give a damn about any of the characters, so I think one child having his first birthday cake actually is enough of a drama to carry a scene."

Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay as "Ma" and Jack. (CBC Gem)

Deciding what stays and what goes

"In a few cases, Lenny [Abrahamson] allowed me to un-make decisions I had made about the film at the outset. For instance, I had the sense that the long hair was going to be a problem because in the book Jack just occasionally mentions having long hair; it's no big deal. I thought in the film, it will be so visually striking if he's got long hair, it will be so gender-bending, so I gave Jack short hair. But Lenny said to me, 'No, no. Let's go back to the book. Let's go with the long hair. It's a great way to mark the fact that he's a bit different from normally socialized boys.' He allowed me to question a lot of what I thought was necessary in the film.

It's not like we are defence lawyers, trying to get more and more of the book in. We're all just trying to make a better film.

"From books on screenwriting, I had picked up the idea that every scene needs to start very crisply with one strong line and you get out of the scene as soon as possible, again with one strong line. Lenny said, 'No, no. You write it long and slow like a wildlife documentary, where we're peeking at these people living their lives.' He got me to loosen up and in many cases we went back to the book. It's not as if I was arguing for the book and he was saying, 'Dump the book!' I think that's a real cliché about screenwriters who are adapting their own novels. It's not like we are defence lawyers, trying to get more and more of the book in. We're all just trying to make a better film."

Writing anywhere and everywhere

"I've never had an office away from my home and I'm not at all precious about the writing process. I don't have to have one special pen or anything. I can write on airplanes, on trains, in cafés. These days I've got a treadmill desk, so some of the later drafts would have been written on my treadmill desk. I hate exercise. The treadmill desk can sort of trick me into walking at a few miles an hour while writing because I'm so engrossed I don't actually notice I'm walking. It's a miracle machine. 

"When I'm actually writing, I'm often muttering the words aloud to myself and sometimes in a distinctly crazy-looking way. I remember when I was finishing the novel of Room it was the Christmas holidays and I had the kids at the YMCA playing. I was just outside the door writing a scene on my computer saying the words aloud to myself and I suddenly realized I must look like a complete crazy loon, muttering and looking sorrowful and staring into space." 

Let the light in

"Lenny said to me, 'For Ma, we need someone who can do comedy.' I said, 'Really? Comedy?' He said, 'Yeah, yeah. We need someone who is not sort of pre-determined tragic. We need somebody who might have been the girl next door and ordinary and have had a care-free life. She's ended up in this extraordinary situation, which has brought out these tragic strengths in her.' 

Brie Larson's got this warmth and sparkle which contrasts so wonderfully with the gruelling situation she's in.

"I think he's dead right. Brie Larson's got this warmth and sparkle which contrasts so wonderfully with the gruelling situation she's in."

Emma Donoghue's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

 

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