Exclusive: Room screenwriter Emma Donoghue on shifting perspectives, computer-generated partial nudity, and whether it’s better to read the book or see the film first

Exclusive: Room screenwriter Emma Donoghue on shifting perspectives, computer-generated partial nudity, and whether it’s better to read the book or see the film first October 21, 2015


Room — which tells the story of a five-year-old boy who has spent his whole life inside a soundproof garden shed with his mother, a kidnapping victim — was one of the most widely acclaimed novels of 2010. Now the film version, which opened in the U.S. last Friday and comes to Canada later this week, is one of the most widely acclaimed movies of the current season, winning audience awards at the Toronto and Vancouver film festivals and a fair bit of awards buzz for Brie Larson, who plays the mother.

I had a chance to speak to Emma Donoghue, the Irish-born Canadian author who wrote the novel and the screenplay, when the film came to the Vancouver festival last month. This is the first part of our chat. (Warning: we do discuss some quasi-significant spoilers, some of which were at least hinted at in the movie’s trailer.)

I was still setting up my recording device when Donoghue commented on the fact that I had brought a copy of the novel. I told her that I actually hadn’t known anything about the story before I attended the film’s press screening, and it was only after I saw the film — and loved it — that I requested an interview and made a point of tracking down the book. And it was somewhere in there that the recording began:

…but I hadn’t read the book yet, so I immediately–

Donoghue: Aren’t you thorough!

Well, I try to be a little knowledgeable.

Donoghue: It’s funny, I’ve always thought that you should read the book first and then see the film, because film visuals are so memorable that it’s hard to read a book without immediately seeing, y’know, Jacob Tremblay’s face [i.e. the actor who plays the five-year-old protagonist Jack], but our production designer, Ethan [Tobman], he said to me that he often prefers to watch the film and then read the book because the book often gives you many more tiny details, kind of supplementary.

Fills things in, yeah. I remember, immediately after the screening, a colleague turned to me and said, “Was she breast-feeding the child?” And I said, “You know, there was a shot early on where I wondered if that was happening, and then there was that bit with the T-shirt at the end… Maybe?”

Donoghue: It’s funny, men often don’t quite spot it! I mean, we wanted to do it very delicately, because it can gross people out. I think in our very first showing, some of the younger men involved in distributing the film actually didn’t spot it, so we put in a slight CGI breast. There’s a tiny little side of her breast showing early on, to make it clear.

Oh really? And see, that’s the thing: I couldn’t tell if that was her breast or if that was the boy’s face, or cheek.

Donoghue: Oh, I see what you mean! Yeah, yeah.

So I did see that and wonder. But then, skimming through the book, I realized, oh yeah, it’s pretty clear, so.

Donoghue: Well my dad read most of the book without noticing the breast-feeding, because you know the way Jack just calls it “having some,” and apparently he turned to my mother on about page 200 — and he’s a literary critic — but despite having had eight children who all got breast-fed, he just doesn’t think about that stuff! So he turned to my mother, and he was like, “Is this what I think it is?”

It’s around that point that the mother actually says, “I’m nursing,” so by that point it should be pretty clear.

Donoghue: Yeah. But I think that’s an example of how, in a film, you have to find that perfect balance between spelling things out for everybody and not spelling things out too much. You don’t want to have big close-up nipple shots, because that would be so off-putting to many viewers, so, yeah, there’s always going to be some things that some viewers will miss. But it’s about not hitting viewers over the head.

Well, as a viewer, I like being teased a little, sort of like being drawn into imagining what’s going on.

Donoghue: Yeah, and of course, Jack takes his world so much for granted, and the film follows his point of view, so it refuses to give you a clearer flashback or the kidnapping shown. It doesn’t show you any of that. It tries to be as nonchalant about Room as Jack is. This is his world. Because we’ve all seen a lot of kidnap-and-rape dramas, we don’t really need to see that spelled out visually again. I think what’s different about Room is the angle it takes on the whole thing.

The fact that it’s from Jack’s perspective?

Donoghue: Exactly. And also, in a way that takes all the sexiness out of the kidnapping situation too. It doesn’t let the psychopath set the terms, you know? It says, okay, here’s the situation, and the important and interesting thing is the woman and the child in it, who are so radiant and normal, and I’m going to follow their point of view — I’m not even going to bother telling you what happens in court with the psychopath, because he’s not interesting to me — so I think the film and the book, they both try to do what Ma does, which is keep Old Nick [the man who abducted Ma seven years earlier] at arm’s length and say, “He’s not what’s interesting here. He doesn’t get to set the terms. This is not a sexy dungeon drama.” I mean, really, when Sean Bridgers drops his trousers and you’re seeing him through the slats of the wardrobe and you see his hairy knees, it’s just the least sexy rape scene on film, and I’m so proud of that! I especially love the fact that he wears his glasses.

That’s interesting, because one of the questions I had, coming into this, had to do with the question of perspective. Because the book is very clearly coming from Jack’s perspective–

Donoghue: The book is sort of utterly pure. I mean, Jack does have the ability to report some adult dialogue that he doesn’t understand, but he doesn’t comment on any of it, and the book doesn’t even tell you the mother’s name, because Jack refuses to be interested in his mother’s real name, whereas the film is necessarily slightly less from his perspective, because film always shows you the character as well as what the character is looking at, so film always has that kind of double perspective. And also, rather than seeing that as a watering down of the perspective, I saw that as a broadening of the film into a two-hander, because you get to really meet Ma directly. Some readers found it tantalizing that in the book you only see her through Jack’s eyes, so her suicide attempt, for some readers, seems to come out of nowhere, because they haven’t picked up on the tiny signals in what Jack is reporting. So I think the film will in some ways satisfy those many fans who have asked me for a sequel or a rewrite where I tell the whole thing from Ma’s point of view. Because they have this sort of hunger to know what it was like for her, and I think you really get to feel that and see her directly, moment by moment, coping with life in Room and life after Room, in the film. So I think it’s very satisfyingly become a two-hander.

That was one of the things I was thinking about. Apart from the fact that film is a more objective medium–

Donoghue: It shows you how hideous the room is, for instance! I mean, in the book it doesn’t seem that ugly, but the grottiness of every surface, and how carefully rubbed out, the tiles that are low down, where the toddler would have been rubbing against them!

Yeah, and just the fact that, when people come to a film, especially when the child actor is only five or whatever, they generally don’t have a known name, whereas the adult will quite possibly be better known.

Donoghue: Well luckily Brie is not too recognizable yet.

Not too recognizable, but she’s getting lots of awards buzz, so the conversation around the film is focused very much on Ma. Before I saw the film, I had heard a few things about the film, but people were talking primarily about Ma and the fact that Brie might be an awards contender and so forth, but I hadn’t really heard anybody talk about the boy except for the fact that he was there.

Donoghue: So Jacob is a revelation, isn’t he? Such a mature performance.

And I actually didn’t know at first if he was a boy or a girl.

Donoghue: Many don’t! And you know, that’s a good example of the kind of thing I thought, as a first-time screenwriter. I thought I would sort of have to follow film protocol, so the first thing I did was think, “Okay, we’re going to have to cut the long hair, because visuals are so much more noticeable in a film than in a book, so the long hair is going to be distractingly gender-bending,” so I immediately changed that. And then when I started working with Lenny [Abrahamson], the director, he said to me, “Oh no, let’s go back to the book. Give him long hair! It’s a great sign of how he’s living in a different social world. He hasn’t had to conform to gender norms yet, because he’s not in a world divided by two genders. He’s in a world where me and Ma are the only real humans.” So Lenny was really unafraid of things like that, and the breast-feeding — at our first meeting, he promised me he’d keep in the breast-feeding. (laughs) I remember, he promised me that it wouldn’t be black and white, that nobody would die, and that you’d see the breast-feeding.

Black and white — was that actively considered?

Donoghue: Well, you know, he’s got a very arthouse background, so I was slightly like, “Is this suddenly going to become a really bleak Euro film where everybody dies?” I just had to check.

Okay. Well for me, the thing about the fact that Jack looks like a girl — basically because of the hair, but at that age, what’s the difference–

Donoghue: At that age, they’re all sort of very sweet, rounded creatures.

Exactly. So my initial thought was, “Oh, it’s a girl,” but when Old Nick stops by, he uses the pronoun “he”. And because the movie starts us in Room — because we are in that world — I had no assumptions. For all I knew, the way that Old Nick and Ma had set it up, maybe they were calling this child a boy because they wanted her to be a boy.

Donoghue: It could be anything!

Yeah. I didn’t want to assume anything about what was going into this, so it wasn’t until much later in the film that it finally sort of became clear that he was a boy.

Donoghue: That’s great that you could go in without knowing too much. Because the first thing about publicity is that, in order to persuade people to read the book or see the film, you have to tell them half the story. And all writers would prefer readers know nothing. That’s how we design our books: they’re like a machine for slow revelations. So the last thing we want to do is give it all away in advance.

And this is perhaps an example of where not reading the book was an advantage–

Donoghue: Indeed!

–because in the book, early on, it talks about how “we’re bathing and my penis is floating,” whereas coming to the film not knowing the book, I was sort of figuring it out a bit.

Donoghue: You’re reminding me, I saw a blog once that said Jack must be a badly abused child because he uses the words “penis” and “vagina”. And I thought, “Okay, it’s clearly a family where they’re still saying ‘pee-pee’!” You’re intrinsically damaged if you know the word “penis”! Very, very strange.

Do you know the Usborne books, they have a book called How Your Body Works?

Donoghue: Yes, yes!

At the age of six, I knew what all the sex organs were because they had these robots with all the genitals, and it’s a British book, so I figured you might know it.

Donoghue: Actually, French kids’ books are particularly frank, visually speaking. If they’ve got a picture of kids on a beach, there’ll be a kid who’s naked. Whereas in North American picture books, they always have a beach umbrella in the way or something, so you never see the privates.

Come back tomorrow for part two of this exclusive interview, in which we talk about autism, religion, and the balancing act between freedom and learning new rules.

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