An interview with Irish writer Emma Donoghue about her harrowing 2010 novel “Room” — told through the eyes of a five-year-old boy who’s grown up as a prisoner — and its upcoming film adaptation.
“Many of my friends won’t read it — it sounds horrifying!” said Emma Donoghue, with a lilting Irish laugh, of her 2010 novel “Room.”
The book, narrated by a five-year-old boy named Jack, has a chilling premise: Jack and his mother — identified in the pages only as Ma — live imprisoned in one room, held captive by the man who abducted Jack’s then-teenage mother seven years ago. That room is all that Jack knows and Ma, even as she schemes desperately to make their escape, has made of it, as best she can, a warm and magical place for him.
Donoghue’s friends aside, many have read “Room” and found it a harrowing yet lyrical, intensely moving story of the power of maternal love. It won numerous literary honors and was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. And now, a fresh audience will be discovering it: The film version of “Room,” adapted by Donoghue and starring Brie Larson (“Short Term 12”) opens in theaters this month. (The Seattle opening is Oct. 30.)
Emma Donoghue, ‘Room’
“Room” opens Friday, Oct. 30, at Lincoln Square, Guild 45th and Pacific Place. Rated R for language.
Interviewed at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, the perpetually smiling Donoghue spoke of her delight at getting the film made — and at having the rare opportunity to revise her own work for a different medium. (The festival was a short journey for the Irish-born writer, who now lives in London, Ontario with her partner and two children.) She began work on the screenplay, she said, even before the cinematic rights to the novel were sold.
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“I thought, if people come to me to buy the rights to ‘Room,’ and I say I want to be the screenwriter, they may well say, ‘You’ve no experience, why should you be?’” she said. “I thought I should at least have a bash before the eyes of the world were on me.” Later, once director Lenny Abrahamson was on board, she revised the script with him. “We really felt our way through the material, trying to make some kind of filmic equivalent for the way the book had worked.”
Though the book unfolds entirely through the voice and eyes of Jack, Donoghue was initially reluctant to “to do the obvious thing and have lots and lots of voice-over.” Eventually, Abrahamson convinced her to add some, sparingly, “to almost mark the beats in between sections, in a rhythmic way, but not to give lots of information. We were always trusting that the camera would find a way to show us Jack looking at the world, but of course it also shows us Jack, that lovely dual perspective.”
That voice came, initially, not just from Donoghue’s imagination: Her own son, at the time she wrote “Room,” was five years old. “I thought five was the perfect age,” she said. “You want the child to be very young and have a very strange sense of the world … but to be old enough to start asking questions, and five-year-olds are remarkable that way. They might have heard something about, say, the President, and about SpongeBob and they’re equivalent — [children] put them together in their minds. They don’t know basic principles of the world, they just know tiny puzzle pieces.”
“About a year after the book was published, I suddenly realized that my memories of ‘Room’ were going to supplant my memories of my son, because real life you just live through once, but a book you go over and over, and I thought, whoops, I’d better try to distinguish them. So I went through ‘Room’ with a yellow highlighter and I marked up all that seemed directly from my son, and there was something on every page.”
As executive producer of the film, Donoghue was involved in casting, agreeing with Abrahamson that Larson was perfect as Ma (named of Joy for the film). “We needed someone who can do comedy, who has warmth, a girl next-door-feel,” she said. “So when her strength in tragedy emerges, there’s a wonderful shiver to it: This girl could have been ordinary, could have just had a nice happy life.”
In a nerve-racking twist, the actor playing Jack couldn’t be cast until the last minute, for fear that he might quickly grow too big for the role. Jacob Tremblay, who turned eight during the shoot, was the result of a vast search. The two actors, Donoghue said, improvised and played together on the set, forming a gentle mother-son bond.
Though she frequently visited the set during filming (“but I never abused my powers”), Donoghue was nonetheless overwhelmed by the final film, which she saw in its entirety for the first time last spring. “I wept like a baby,” she said. “It’s funny — I was so familiar with every aspect of this, but that didn’t protect me from the emotional onslaught of the film.”
“I hope people don’t see it as a crime drama, because for me and Lenny, the crime was just the premise,” she said. “It’s all about a family.”