‘Room’ Author Emma Donoghue on its Unusual Path to the Big Screen

When Emma Donoghue’s novel “Room” was published in 2010, it became an instant sensation, landing on several bestseller lists and inspiring an avid following. Readers fell in love with the story of Jack, a five-year-old boy who has lived his entire life in a single room with his “Ma.”

While it might seem a difficult story to adapt to film, director Lenny Abrahamson (“Frank”) has done a remarkable job of taking the tough material and forging an uplifting, inspiring movie via Donoghue’s screenplay. Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay are earning Oscar buzz for their roles, and the film has already won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto Film Festival. A24 Films is opening “Room” in limited release Friday, before expanding nationwide on Nov. 6.

Donoghue spoke to Variety about the unusual path “Room” took to the big screen.

When the book came out, there was talk of a film adaptation. But I heard you were holding out to write the screenplay?
I suppose I felt I was in an unusually strong position in that I had this book people wanted and I really wanted to be the script writer. I started writing the script even before the book was published. This way, when I was talking about filmmakers I could say, “I’m not asking you to hire me unseen, here’s a script. Let’s go on from there.” The whole thing was done in an unusual order.

And you were holding out for the right director?
Yes, it was really important to me to get the right director. I wasn’t willing to sell to a producer who would then put some director in place. Tonally you could mess up “Room” so badly; it could be so rapey, it could be so soppy. So basically I waited for the right director. And I knew it would not be hard to cast it because there are so many great actresses between 20 and 30.

I have this image of you turning down calls from the likes of Steven Spielberg.
I wouldn’t say every director in the world was courting me. I was getting lots of nibbles, not just from directors, but producers and actors. But none of them seemed quite right. Also, I didn’t feel there needed to be a film made of this. A lot of writers will scorn the film world and will boast about how they sold the rights and don’t care. But I love cinema. And the publishing experience had been so great, and especially my relationship with the book fans. I had a real sense I owed them a great film or none.

So when did you finally sell the film rights?
I didn’t technically sell them until the first day of filming. Again, an unusual way to proceed. Lenny’s company Element came looking and they wanted an option and my agent at UTA always said, “What do you want?” I said, “I want to be fully involved, I want to be the screenwriter.” So instead of selling them an option, we did an attachment where we all agreed to work together with nobody getting paid for anything until the beginning of filming.

Lenny says he wrote you a long letter detailing why he was the right person for the job. What did he say that convinced you?
Even though I hadn’t heard of Lenny before, this letter he sent me just blew me away. It was 10 pages, typed. He’s really smart, he’s really eloquent, he’s even more bookish than me. It was a smartly, well written letter and he completed understood the novel. He saw past the criminal element. And he told me exactly how he would make it. It was a letter from the heart, with his incredibly smart mind. There was none of this my people will have lunch with your people. It just blew me away.

The trailers reveal that Ma and Jack escape from “Room,” while the book’s promotion kept it a bit more ambiguous. How did you feel about that?
Trailers almost always give it away. I remember having the same discussion with my publishers when the book came out, there was a blurb for the jacket that gave away the entire plot. I said, “Please don’t tell about the escape.” So we negotiated on a phrase like, “Ma dreams of a better life.” That’s the perverse thing about publicity; we’d all prefer the audience going in knowing nothing at all. But in order to hook them, you have to tell them something. And I think people are so disproportionately scared and alarmed by the premise of the story, you have to offer them some hope and assurance. Otherwise you’re yanking on their heartstrings and making them afraid for a child. So I understand why A24 needed to emphasize the upbeat.

The film also reveals more about Ma, since the book is narrated by Jack.
It was such a thrill for me to see Ma step into the foreground. A lot of readers were a little frustrated that in the book they’re kind of glimpsing her behind Jack. And I was right to do it in the book, because the book is all about Jack’s point of view. But I think the movie gets to satisfy all those readers out there who wanted to know more about Ma. Readers just harass me to know more about Ma. They have this hunger for Ma. So it’s so satisfying to have the film fulfill that function to a certain extent.

It must be rewarding to see fans of the book appreciating the movie, as well.
I always tell Lenny when we’re about go in front of an audience, “If they don’t like it, it’s on you. They all liked the book!”

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