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Novelist Emma Donoghue waited to find the perfect director for 'Room'

Author-screenwriter Emma Donoghue with The Frame's John Horn at the Telluride Film Festival.
Author-screenwriter Emma Donoghue with The Frame's John Horn at the Telluride Film Festival.
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The movie “Room,” adapted by Emma Donoghue from her novel of the same name, has a terrifying premise: The book is narrated by a young mother’s five-year-old son, named Jack. As far as the child knows, all of the real world is contained within the walls of the tiny room in which they live. But the truth is his mother was abducted as a teenager and repeatedly raped by her captor. Her abductor is Jack’s father, and he has locked them into a room from which they can never leave.

To protect her son, the mother has never explained to Jack their actual circumstances. But when the kidnapper grows even more dangerous, she not only has to give Jack a brutal education in what is really happening, but also teach him how he might help them escape.

The movie version of “Room,” directed by Lenny Abrahamson, just had its world premiere at the Telluride Film Festival. The film stars Brie Larson as the mother and newcomer Jacob Tremblay as Jack.

Emma Donoghue wrote the screenplay for the film, and The Frame’s John Horn caught up with the Irish writer in Telluride.

Interview Highlights 

How long has “Room” been in the making?

I always date it by my son because he was four-and-a-half when I started writing it and he’s 11 now. So it feels like a long time in parenting terms, but I suppose in publishing terms [it's] not so long.

But it’s not just in parenting that your son is relevant to this book. He was also partially the inspiration for it, wasn’t he?

Yes. Because when I heard about — it happened to be an Austrian captivity case — the Fritzl case, it suddenly stuck me that parenting quite often feels like you’re in a locked room. And then it struck me again that being a child probably feels like you’re locked in a room with this unreasonable person for the first 18 years of your life. I know that sounds flippant, but it struck me that these very rare and weird cases of women basically giving birth to babies in captivity actually captures something very universal about the appalling intimacy of the parent-child bond.

One of the things that sets your book apart is the conceit that the mother of Jack has decided that she’s not going to tell him the circumstances of their situation. She has decided that, since he has no other reference, the room is going to be what it is. That this is a normal way of living.

I was just extrapolating from things like Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy. I remember before we had kids I thought, Oh, I’ll never lie to them. And then as soon as they’re born you start to lie to them because you want to make the world explicable in safe ways. So, I tell my children historical anecdotes, but then I always sweeten them up a bit, for instance. So if we’re in France and I see a plaque saying someone was hanged by the Nazis, I’ll start telling the story and then I’ll suddenly think, This is a downer. And so I turn it into a kind of a fairy tale: Then the Allies arrived and opened the camps and everything was fine. So we all simplify, we distort, we try and make the world in some way understandable for their tiny little minds. And I think Ma just does the logical thing and just tries to pretend that where they’re living is not a prison.

When the book was published it was immediately very well received — critically and commercially. At what point did the conversations about turning it into a feature film begin?

That was my idea really. And even as I was writing the book I thought, This is my seventh novel, but it’s the first one that really feels to me like it has a story that could work really well on film. Not just because it’s high concept, but because having a child see the world, I thought it would be wonderful to actually see that. Not just be in his head, but have that kind of double perspective of seeing him and seeing what he sees. So before the book actually came out I started writing the screenplay because I thought it would be easier to tackle it before anybody started advising me on how to do that.

So you had written the novel — it had yet to be published — but before it hits bookstores you decided to start writing the screenplay?

It sounds a little cocky but it was more that I felt less intimidated that way. I didn’t want to wait for filmmakers crowding around me telling me how it should be done. I wanted to have a bash at it myself.

The book was published in 2010. You were writing the screenplay around its publication. We’re in 2015 when the movie is finally appearing. What happened in the intervening years and was it clear from the inception that you would be able to continue to be the screenwriter? Was there any pressure to bring in somebody else to adapt this book?

No, because I didn’t get in bed with any film companies who would have put such pressure on me. I felt I was in a uniquely lucky position that I had written this well-received best-seller. I didn’t feel that I needed to sell the film rights desperately to feed my children. So I thought, There doesn’t have to be a film of this book at all. I can afford to wait for the perfect filmmakers and I can afford to say to them, “I’m the writer.”

And you did that, right?

I did. And of course I was very lucky, I’m not saying it’s always easy, but I think I made the right decisions. There were a lot of approaches from quite big names and none of them seemed right to me. And I was particularly afraid of a bad, bad film being made of this book, which had been such a great experience to write and to publish. I thought it could have been a creepy rape movie and I thought it could have been a schmaltzy I love you mommy [type of movie]. And I just couldn’t bare to have my name put to either of those things. So I kept saying no. And at a certain point my partner said to me ,“Are you going to say no forever? Are you ever going to make a film of this?" And I kept saying, “The right director will come.”

Would you ever consider writing an original screenplay as opposed to adapting one of your upcoming books?

Definitely. Yeah, there’s no reason for cinema to have to go through fiction first.  It just seems to happen to me that ideas arise as novels first. But I would definitely write an original screenplay. I mean, I’ve got the bug now. I want to be part of filmmaking. It’s deeply exciting.

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