"Room" author on adapting her bestseller and the power of Brie Larson’s imprisoned mother: “She's a survivor from the word go"

Salon spoke to "Room" author Emma Donoghue about the new film adaptation screening at TIFF

Published September 16, 2015 5:32PM (EDT)


When I heard that Emma Donoghue’s 2010 novel “Room” was being made into a feature film, I had my reservations. The book, for those who missed it during its many weeks atop the bestseller list, is about a a mother and her five-year-old son (“Ma” and Jack), who live inside “Room.” For Ma, Room is a prison; seven years ago, as a teenager, she was kidnapped and imprisoned in a backyard shed, giving birth to Jack after her captor raped her. But to Jack, Room is home; in order to shield him from the painful reality of their situation, Ma has convinced him that Room is the entire universe, raising him with no knowledge that a world exists beyond their four walls.

The book, told from Jack’s perspective, centers on Jack’s conception of life in Room, his and Ma’s daring escape, and his eventual adjustment to life in a world he never knew: a uniquely powerful story about the bonds between mother and child and a harrowing exploration of how human beings find ways to adapt in impossible situations. But it also presents a unique adaptation challenge, given that it is told from the point of view of a five-year-old and takes place mostly inside a single 11-by-11 garden shed.

Alas, I was wrong to be skeptical. The film, which screened at the Toronto International Film Festival this week, is a masterpiece, boasting exquisite performances from Brie Larson as Ma (a surefire Oscar bet) and Jacob Tremblay as Jack, sensitive directing by Lenny Abrahamson, and a script adapted from the book by Donoghue herself. Somehow, the film manages to retain the book's emotional power, contrasting Jack's vision of Room as an intimate safe haven with the brutal reality of Ma's imprisonment, without relying on cheap filmmaking gimmicks.

We sat down with Donoghue to talk a little bit about the adaptation process, casting Larson and Tremblay, and watching her story come to life onscreen.

I'm sure you've heard this a lot before, but your book was so powerful to read. It stayed with me for so long after I finished it. 

It's a book that everyone makes into their own book in their heads. Some people come up to me and say, “Oh, you wrote that sweet story about that little boy,” and I think, “Okay,” and then the next person is like, “I was destroyed by that book.”

What made you decide to adapt it into a film?

It was my seventh novel, and there'd been attempts to film some of them before, but they never quite reached the production stage. This time I just had a good feeling that the storyline was one that could carry a film, even though there were technical challenges, such as spending the whole first half of it in the locked shed. I thought more important than that is whether you can imagine an audience caring about this story for the next two hours; and this one I did. So I rather cheekily decided to write a script before the book was published and the eyes of the world were on me. And then I waited for the right director and I talked to some directors, and many people were interested, but nobody was quite right. Because I didn't feel like I had to sell the film rights. I wanted it to be a good film or not a film.

And then Lenny Abrahamson wrote me this ten-page letter [that was] so wise. As an intellectual and as the father of a little boy and girl, he just completely got what I was doing and was full of enthusiasm for how he would convert it into cinema. Often in the film business they can make it sound like you just have this property that they're going to take over, whereas Lenny offered me many specifics on exactly how he would film it. So I've had the most enjoyable few years working with him. We worked with my script, but obviously he really helped me to improve it.

And was that your first screenplay?

It was my first filmed screenplay.

What were the challenges of adapting a story  that was written in the first person by a five-year-old?

Well, I remember resolving not to do the obvious thing and make it almost entirely voice-over. I always think that's a sign that a film is desperately still trying to be its source novel. So we were always interested in finding a kind of filmic equivalent, and also, one thing I love is that film can show you the protagonist — [you can] literally look at their face, and then the next minute [they] show you what the protagonist is seeing. It gives you that kind of double perspective; I felt that would add a real richness.

Also, in the book, Ma is somebody we have to figure out by looking through Jack's perspective of her and by putting together all the little hints of things he doesn't understand. In the film, we get to see her directly. A lot of readers were hungry for more of Ma and wrote to ask me to tell the whole story again from Ma's point of view. And I won't, I will never rewrite it. But in a way, the film answers a lot of their curiosity and their yearning for more of Ma.

I read some of your production diaries and I know there was some concern about the limitations of shooting the first half of the film in a small room, and being able to show it from Jacob’s point of view. But Lenny was really able to find this kind of cinematic language to express it.

It doesn't feel boring in there. It never feels repetitious. Somehow he and Danny the cinematographer found interesting enough angles, and nothing was ever too gimmicky.

Was there ever a discussion about using animation or anything like that?

Never, no tricks. Other directors had suggested animation and actually, even many of my friends said, “Oh, I assume you'll need to put in flashbacks to the kidnapping or whatever.” But he never considered flashbacks or anything earlier or later in the time scheme, or looked at animation and special effects in any way. He's got a really clean, naturalistic style.

I was really happy with how he did it. It's not that I was trying to keep it exactly how it was in the book, it's more that I would have been suspicious if there'd been any attempt to add too many bells and whistles. It's a very straightforward kind of love story between a mother and child, and I think he finds a very simple language for that.

Obviously Brie Larson is kind of a sensation and all the early reviews -- which have been incredibly positive — are saying that she is the next big thing and that she’s going to win awards for this performance. 

I was allowed to watch the rushes on a website, and from early on I was thinking, “My god, she's going to win awards for this.” It's so satisfying to see an actress like Brie get a part big enough for her, meaty enough, because she's had too many girlfriend roles. To see her be able to be her fullest self here — in particular, one thing struck me. When she auditioned for Lenny, she was wonderfully egoless about it. And in her audition tapes, you think you can see the child. She's chatting away to this child, and you think the child is in the room, and there was no child — that was Lenny! Somehow with her warmth and playfulness she conjures up this child. I also remember Lenny saying to me, we need somebody who can do comedy, because we need that sort of human warmth and naturalness. You need to feel like this was the girl next door who got kidnapped, and she's become something extraordinary. He said, we don't want somebody who's already tragic, born to be tragic.

I understand that Brie underwent quite an intensive preparation process for the role.

She did, but never in a sort of “Don't talk to me, I'm preparing” way. She's very down-to-earth. She'd sit around in her Ugg boots and be very friendly to everybody. I remember I couldn't figure out how to use the coffee machine, and she changed the milk for me, and I thought, “Oh my god, Brie Larson's changing my milk!” And she wrote out journals for the character, did a huge amount of preparation. The lovely thing was to share the power with everybody at that point; it was no longer my story. Each of the actors had taken on their character and put so much work into it. For example, when they improvised, I didn't feel threatened the way I would have expected to.

How much improvisation is there?

They improvised quite a lot, quite a few scenes, like the family chatting over dinner or Ma and Jack playing in the room. I would have decided that they should have a scene where they're exercising, but then within that, often the tiny little bits of dialogue are Brie and Jake. As a first-time screenwriter, I hadn't fully realized until then that it's not exactly about what words they say. You've chosen the scene, you've chosen the characters, and you have to allow for a little bit of randomness within that.

Can you talk a little bit about the process of casting Jacob?

I was so scared that they wouldn't find a good enough boy, and of course they couldn't do it early because a child gets big teeth and grows up. We had a running joke that we would have to remove the teeth if they came in.

When was the first time you saw him?

Of the hundreds and hundreds of interviews they did, they showed me about forty video clips, and his was just outstanding. It's not that it was already a fully-finished performance, but he was so keen and eager – he clearly enjoys acting. Some of the kids were still just barely answering to “What's your name, what's your birthday?,” and he was saying, “I can do the voice-over now.” I think it really helped that he had a bit of film experience. In theory you want to choose some total random unknown walking down the street. But in fact, a totally unknown kid would have found it grueling to learn the business of takes and retakes, and so on, whereas Jake knew all that, so he was able to concentrate on being Jack. He acted it very consciously. It's not one of these roles where a kid is just being themselves.

There are always some things that gets lost in the adaptation process. What were the key things from the book that you wanted to make sure made it to screen?

The unsentimental, muscular love between the mother and child. In the book, I never ever have Jack and Ma tell each other they love each other, because it should be obvious at every moment. Yes, they're mother and child, but they're also like buddies, especially when they're doing the escape. I thought a bit of it as a buddy movie genre as well as love story genre. Motherhood is so often presented sentimentally, and I wanted to capture the sheer aliveness, moment by moment, the improvisational quality of motherhood: “Okay, he won't eat the peanut butter. Let's see, do I have an apple?” That to me is the absolute core of it, and I'm so happy with the results.

I know you read a lot about cases of children in captivity. In “Room,” Ma is able to stay very strong and Jack is very positive and has this resilient outlook. Is that something you've observed from real life? 

“Room” is really a best-case scenario. A lot of the captivity cases have additional horrors, like beatings. One guy in Russia, every time the girl had a baby he'd take the baby away and leave it outside an orphanage. So it's a very rare situation for children to be kept in a situation like that, and often there's additional miseries. In the Fritzl case, they didn't have enough air, they were all ill. So I made “Room” above-ground, with plenty of food, even daylight.

I wasn't following the specifics of any of those cases, but I certainly did borrow bits from the  psychology of the women who survived them. I remember one Belgian case where she didn't have a child, but was still held for quite a long time, and really resented doing the media stuff afterwards. She couldn't stand all that poking and prying. She was very resistant to the whole therapeutic project; she just wanted to get on with her life. So I borrowed all sorts of interesting little hints.

But I also looked at things much more general, like people who've been through solitary confinement and American jails, refugee situations where people suddenly come from one world to another, and the adults find it hard to adjust. I looked at cases where kids have been adopted from an orphanage in a totally different culture, and have to start relearning everything. I looked at things like Scandinavian prisons where they often have mother and child units, and the child doesn't quite realise that the mother is not allowed to leave. There's all sorts of angles on this. So I didn't just look at hideously abusive cases. And any time I was looking up those terrible cases — where kids are raised in a hen house or something — what I took from that was: It'll be different for Jack, because he's going to have language, above all. These kids in these horrible cases are often starved of language, they're kept voiceless. Whereas he's going to be growing up in this world of song and rhyme, play and repartee.

It seems like some of these liminal human experiences that people have in captivity can be a really interesting jumping off-points to explore things like the development of language and the formation of interpersonal bonds. 

And things like the Chilean miners. They had to make themselves a daily routine, and they did things like prayers and songs, and so on. I read a lot about resilience and what makes certain kids or families able to get through hard times. Or even the concept of family. I have an unusual family myself in that we're two women with two kids. So I know what it's like to be part of a family that feels totally normal to you and your kids, but that the outside world might think of as odd-shaped. I'm very interested in the things that a family really needs. It's not a house, but it's things like rituals, routines in common, and a feeling that your life is meaningful and that it's in your own command – that you're not just helpless victims.

Its very powerful to see a story that is so driven by the strength of a woman and a mother. 

Absolutely. Also, I think it's crucial that we come into her story seven years on. So she's not the innocent girl who is just about to be raped; its not about that moment. She's a survivor from the word go, and she is glorious in her state of captivity. She's making all sorts of compromises, having to be polite to the captor, humble and deferential, and yet we see her strength just shining through. She's not remotely pure. She's a woman who's been through an awful lot and comes out the other end. I think that's a hugely powerful story to tell.

What's really crucial about the second half is her and her mother remaking their relationship, to see that over two generations. You see it particularly clearly in the film because in the second half of the book, Jack's encountering all sorts of things. But we really focused on the grandmother. I think it's just beautiful to see that reworking of a relationship between mother and child at a point of great change. How do you welcome your daughter back when she's all grown up and has survived unthinkable horrors, has her own child, and you have to not interfere?

Unlike with the film, when I read the book I didn't know what was going to happen. 

Excellent! The problem with publicity is that you need it in order to get people to read the book, but we'd rather do a “Men in Black” thing and erase their minds just before they read it. We don't want them to know the details.

It's amazing to read the clues and watch the story unfold. But obviously in the trailers and in the promotional materials, we know from the beginning that Ma and Jack do get out, although it's not a story particularly about the escape. It's about life before and after. Was there any conversation as to how much you wanted to reveal in the promotional materials?

Oh, yeah. I remember saying early on that if I got to make the trailer I would show the first five minutes of life in that room, and that's it. But I forget what a dark story it is and its premise. People are so disproportionately distressed by the idea of a child in a locked room. Actually, it's important that people reminded me that we need to keep telling people that its not a depressing film. It's not one of those grim films you have to make yourself go see. It's actually extraordinarily uplifting. So the bright lettering they used on the book cover was a great signal to the reader: no, the kid's not going to die! Some people in bookstores read the last page of the book first to reassure themselves. So whatever it takes to gently lure the reader or viewer into going through this dark story and out into the light at the other end. If that's what it takes, then fine.

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2015 Toronto International Film Festival Aol_on Brie Larson Emma Donoghue Jacob Tremblay Room Tiff