Quite a few years ago, local crime author Dennis Lehane spoke to a group of Suffolk University students, on the subject of screenwriting. But when he was asked if he had given any thought to adapting one of his own books—all of the screenplays for those movies had been written by other writers—he begged off. He told a story about Mystic River: he had been asked to write the screenplay, but couldn’t figure out how to work his book’s 50-page prologue into the film’s first act. Clint Eastwood would later solve that problem by throwing the whole prologue out. That was a solution he should’ve seen himself, Lehane volunteered—but it was tough, because adapting your own book is like performing surgery on your own baby.
Emma Donoghue got to perform that surgery herself. The Irish-born author of Room—the movie, starring Brie Larson, is playing in Boston theaters now—was offered the rare opportunity to adapt her own novel into a screenplay, and didn’t hesitate. The book concerns five-year-old Jack and his Ma (Larson.) She has been kidnapped into sex slavery. Jack was born within that captivity. Donoghue—who has novels, stage plays, and numerous other published works to her credit—allowed the prose of her novel to position the story within the young boy’s head. And the movie, being a movie, has to instead show that which could not be spoken of. But Donoghue didn’t mind the challenge. She was just excited to have been invited into the operating room.
“The typical experience is that they option your book and then nothing happens,” she tells us, the morning after attending a mobbed screening of the film at the Brattle Theatre. “So I was like. ‘this is my one chance—Cinderella is briefly at the ball!’ I was running around set saying things like ‘so you’re a grip? What does a grip do?’”
Donoghue talked to us over coffee about the specifics of adapting her own work into a movie: the scenes that had to be cut, the perspectives that needed to be reoriented, and the passages that had to be written at the last moment.
You recently published a short diary online about your experiences watching production on the set itself. And in it, you brought up a couple of movies that are about anguished novelists being wasted in Hollywood … obviously the experience you had on Room was a strong one, or you wouldn’t be here talking to us. But was there a lot of anxiety going in?
Emma Donoghue: How could you not have anxiety? Even if you haven’t seen Barton Fink or The Player … every writer talks to every other reader about their awful [heavy emphasis] experiences with the film business. I know somebody whose book was bought by a European company, they made the movie, and then they didn’t tell him when it was coming out—he ended up finding out online, and then flying himself out to Croatia for his own premiere. Many writers will tell you some version of that anecdote. And its a cautionary tale. It was said to me: “Take the money and run!” And that didn’t appeal to me. I love the cinema, and I couldn’t bear to have a bad film made of my book. It would feel dirty!
Tell us about the nuts-and-bolts process of adapting your own novel for the screen—having to cut things and reorient sequences that you’d already “locked down.” For instance, with cinema, perspective is a much looser element: you can’t tell a whole movie from the first person.
Yeah. And in a book, if you switched from “he was watching her banana bread” to “she was looking at his t-shirt” … you can do that every now and then, but you shouldn’t be doing it every paragraph. Because it’s a big adjustment. But with film, it’s inherently dialectic. Very different. And any kind of gimmick, like putting the camera on Jack’s head, would’ve been ludicrous, because we’re trying to capture natural conversations between mother and child. So I knew the film had to show us both Jack and what Jack sees. Immediately there’s a doubling there. So there’s moments where the camera shows us—very coldly—just how nasty that room is. And there are other moments where the camerawork is inflected by a sort of magical thinking.
Does that matter of perspective become a challenge during the process of adaptation? The second half of the film (which goes outside the eponymous room) involves a lot more adult conversations with Larson’s character. And we’re often hearing them out of the corner of the frame, from Jack’s sidelined point-of-view… how do you determine how much we’ll “overhear,” for instance?
Well even in the book, Jack is a big observer. Because Ma has taught him to repeat things he hears on the TV, he’s able to regurgitate dialogue that he doesn’t fully understand. And because Ma is overprotective of him, I know it would [make sense] for her to keep him close even during conversations that he shouldn’t be hearing. To me, the important thing was just that we never forgot Jack. We needed enough shots of him that you never forget that he’s there.
And that did determine some of what we showed. For instance, at one point [director] Lenny [Abrahamson] had gotten me to put a lot of conversations with FBI employees. We wanted to be authentic about the situation of being rescued from a scenario like this. And I found all that very dull, so I was glad when it all got stripped away! Because I think holding to Jack’s perspective means … I think his interests are focused on “what are we going to have for lunch?” and “what did Grandma say to me earlier?” And I think that saves the film from going down the traditional crime procedural track.
You were clearly very involved with the production itself—what was your experience like seeing the movie get whittled down to its final form?
Things fall away at every stage. It’s interesting. I had written a long police station section, and then before filming, Lenny said to me: “You know the editor says we don’t really need that beat. So let’s just have Jack be asleep for that.” And I thought that was fine, because I could see that the second half was bulky and had lots of location, and needed some scenes to be stripped away. Sometimes a fresh eye on the material can show you that your story can be told without certain details. And what concerned us with the second half was having the house turn into a contrasting location in relation to Room. And so rather than go to lots of different locations, we spent a lot of time in that house.
Also, my first draft didn’t include voiceover at all. Because I’m so aware that it’s “the way” to adapt a literary novel that’s written in the first person. I get so sick of those films—the ones that start with “It was a hot summer the year I turned 5…” These are not novels, so let’s make them films! That doesn’t mean that you can’t use voiceover discerningly, so we added it at a late stage. Lenny said he wanted it for punctuation—to mark different sections of the film, rather than to add information. And he said he didn’t want the voiceover to milk the emotion of the scenes, so he asked me to write it obliquely. So, say, when Ma is being dragged off by the paramedics, you get Jack commenting in a spacy way about time and the universe, rather than saying “I’m sad about my Mom.”
So you were involved as a writer up through the production and editing stages—that’s rather unusual, right?
I was lucky that they made the movie near me. I live in London, Ontario, and they shot the movie in Toronto. So I got up there about once a week, on average, through the shoot, which lasted for 49 days. I got to sample all the locations, I got to bring my kids with me… I felt like an “honored guest” there. I wouldn’t kid myself into thinking that I had any real role on the set itself [during production.] Sometimes people say to me, “did you talk to the actors about your view of their characters?” And all I could think about that was “the clock is ticking every moment you’re on set, and money is going with it.” The last thing I should be doing there is giving Brie Larson insights.
ROOM. NOW PLAYING AT THE KENDALL SQUARE CINEMA, THE COOLIDGE CORNER THEATRE, AND THE AMC BOSTON COMMONS. RATED R.