Author Emma Donoghue helped bring her novel 'Room' to the big screen

Donoghue is pictured on the set of the film.
Donoghue is pictured on the set of the film.
Published Dec. 2, 2015

Emma Donoghue always believed her 2010 novel Room was cinematic, despite being chiefly set in a garden shed.

"Cinema doesn't always mean big open vistas and Monument Valley," Donoghue said by telephone from France, three days before the Paris attacks. "Cinema does small situations wonderfully."

Few come smaller with more wonders than Room, a movie adapted by the author from her story of a kidnapped mother and her child confined in a backyard tomb, 5-year-old Jack for his entire life.

The novel was an international bestseller and was short-listed for the Man Booker and Orange prizes. Donoghue, 46, has published seven other novels, including Frog Music and Slammerkin, as well as short story collections, plays and literary criticism. Born and raised in Dublin, Ireland, she has lived in Canada since 1998.

The movie version of Room is now showing at Tampa Theatre and Sundial 19 in St. Petersburg. It will likely go wider as the awards season proceeds.

Donoghue is among the film's contenders, for transferring the unique first-person perspective and surprises of her novel to the screen. Like Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl script last year, Room's screenplay shows the uncommon benefit of authorship in tricky narrative situations, in a Hollywood era of focus group revision.

"I think it should happen more often," Donoghue said, an Irish-Canadian lilt to her voice.

"I don't mean we're the only ones who can do it, not at all. But I don't think there should be a prejudice against us. It should not be a feel that, oh, we're protective mothers who are not going to let the child soar as they should."

The key, she said, is a trustful relationship with the director, as Flynn had with David Fincher. Donoghue's connection with Room director Lenny Abrahamson began with a seven-page letter he sent to the author, pitching himself to handle her story.

What about the correspondence convinced Donoghue?

"First of all, this is going to sound snobby, but the letter was really well-written," she said, laughing. "You can't always assume that someone in the film industry is going to be such a good writer. It was all perfectly spelled, detailed but also deeply passionate.

"He spoke about why he wanted to make this film, his own personal stake in it, as the father of small children. Then he jumped right into details of how we would film certain sequences. No vague generalities, not the hedging and dealmaking as so often happens. He was just being enormously up front."

Donoghue was convinced, working with Abrahamson for more than a year on the screenplay, and on how it might be visualized. The novel Room is told entirely in young Jack's voice, the story's horror masked by his innocence.

"As soon as we're using a camera, we're not seeing everything purely as Jack sees them," Dognohue said. "We couldn't rely on first-person narration, but neither of us wanted to completely transform the story line, either."

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Rejecting the idea of flashbacks to "open up" the novel's first half, Room spends its first half entirely inside the shed prison, with only Ma (Brie Larson), Jack (Jacob Tremblay) and visits from their captor, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers), making it a remarkably intimate movie experience.

"It's a broader look at Room," Donoghue said, "simultaneously capturing the ways it is a grimy, horrible dungeon, and the ways in which it is a magical, intimate place for Jack and Ma."

Donoghue said her hardest narrative loss from the novel was Ma's earlier stillbirth, "an important piece but in film it's all about the flow of the story line."

That led to asking Donoghue about a brief scene in Room that I didn't think was in the book, an "I love you" exchange between two key characters.

"No, it's not in the book at all, no," she said. "Again, it's about timing." Warmth built over "probably about 100 pages" needed to be boiled down to a simple scene.

"I was very worried about that moment in the script, frankly," Donoghue said. "Lenny said to me: Don't worry about that moment; I'm filming it in a wide shot. I asked, what difference does that make?

"He said if he went closeup it would be like a Hollywood moment, squeezing it for emotion. He said he'd film it wide and keep the temperature of the moment cooler. That's the kind of thing I have no idea about until I watch a master at work."

Contact Steve Persall at or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall.