EMMA DONOGHUE discussing Room as part of BOOKS ON FILM at the TIFF Bell Lightbox (350 King West) on Tuesday, March 3 at 7 pm (book signing from 6 pm). $25-35. tiff.net/books
A story about a woman locked in a basement with her child (the progeny of her rapist/jailer) doesn’t sound like hit material. But not only did Emma Donoghue’s 2010 book Room make the bestseller list for over a year, it won Canada’s Writers’ Trust award for fiction and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
When Hollywood came calling, Donoghue had already written the screenplay(!), which garnered four Oscar nominations in 2015, including Best Picture, a best actress win for Brie Larson and an adapted screenplay nod for Donoghue.
Why do audiences embrace this story, which on its face appears almost repellent? For one thing, half way through the narrative Ma and Jack escape. This is not a spoiler and Donoghue has never had a problem with revealing this key plot point. (When it first came out, I often heard people say, “Oh, I don’t think I could bear it.” And I replied, “Don’t worry, they get out. Read it”). Knowing that, a reader or viewer can take in the early scenes and focus on the extraordinary relationship between mother and son, the creative ploys Ma devises to keep young Jack entertained and the extent to which the TV set gives Jack a small sense of the outside world. It’s a unique love story.
Somehow, knowing that the two get away doesn’t reduce the tension during their actual escape, and Room goes on to exquisitely explore the dynamics of Ma and Jack’s adjustment to freedom.
Room continues to be a cultural juggernaut, with Donoghue helping to adapt it for the stage as a play with songs, running at the CAA Theatre from April 4 to 26.
This week, the author takes the stage to talk about the adaptation process as part of TIFF’s excellent Books On Film series. Born in Ireland but based in London, Ontario, Donoghue definitely has the gift of gab and is one of the most entertaining interview subjects around.
In a wide-ranging discussion, we talked about her good luck with her first film team, how she’s managed to avoid letting screenwriting get in the way of her fiction and other film adaptations that she’s admired.
Room, your first screenplay, was nominated for Academy, Golden Globe and BAFTA awards. What made you so successful the first time out?
Well, I was working with a small Irish company that protected the thing. When I talked to other screenwriters, I realized how lucky I’d been as they kept asking me if was I allowed to contact the director. My script was nurtured at every turn by [director] Lenny [Abrahamson]. The classic bit of advice you hear is, “Get into the scene late and get out early. Make it short and snappy to give it the James Bond feel.” And Lenny said, “No that’s far too TV.” He wanted it to be like a wildlife movie. He said, “Give me long scenes of the mother and child interacting and I’ll do the cutting.”
What’s the main difference between adapting for the screen and adapting for the stage?
The fundamental difference is money. It shouldn’t be a factor, but it is. In the film world you’re always aware of the money, how bankable is the star, whether you’re shooting something from above – those crane shots are expensive. Every time you make a decision, you have to have a conversation about money. In the theatre, there’s a budget for the show, but then money is never mentioned otherwise.
There’s also the experience of a play. Film has naturalistic conventions and people expect it to look like they’re in the real world – that there’s some verisimilitude – even though audiences know they’re watching a film. In theatre, there’s no assumption about that. There’s puppetry in our show and songs, elements you’d never put into a film. That’s very liberating.
As a screenwriter you have to learn to be relaxed about the dialogue. You don’t know if your lines will end up completely cut or changed based on input of someone else or played as audio over something else. It’s all used in a collage-like way and you are not the authority whereas in a play, the words spoken are almost the equivalent of the camera work. They are what moves the story along. Like in fiction, the playwright gets to choose the words and is the boss of it. In film you have to surrender and say the script is only one element and who knows how the magic will come together.
After Room’s success you said that you’d continue to write for the screen. Is that still your plan?
Yes, you just don’t see results yet. You write you, send it out and put it out of your mind because the pace is glacial and often you don’t get anything made. I’ve taken up five or six film and TV projects. The Wonder is the most likely to get made, and with the same film company as Room.
I’ve read books by good writers that failed because they seemed to be written with a future movie in mind. Have you found that screenwriting has crept into your own process for writing fiction?
I have very consciously resisted the temptation. Doing that wouldn’t create a particularly marketable book or one likely to be filmed because you’d be muddying the two genres and you’d end up writing something in between. The film industry buys books all the time, precisely because books are so committed to creating a vivid world through their own words. They’re not gesturing toward screenplays. Screenplays make very thin reading.
Are there particular film adaptations that you admire?
Books can wander through a character’s past but, again, film is committed to showing the moment realistically. That’s why so many good films are made from short stories – they can get the gist of it. Like Brokeback Mountain. If you tell a long story about cowboys having a love affair in a high-speed way, it doesn’t work. The film, based on a shorter story, gives enough time to breathe. There’s time for conversation.
Any thoughts on Greta Gerwig’s Little Women?
I liked the film a lot. She was relying on most of us who have read it, so she let herself make the film a little bit hard to follow. My 12-year-old got confused by the time jumps, whereas I was so steeped in the book I wasn’t confused by them at all all. And I like how she modernized it just enough. She brought out the rampant feminism that the book is full of already. In a classic like that, you want the year the adaptation is being made to meet the year the book was made. It’s like Hamilton. Hamilton isn’t about the 1770s, it’s now speaking to the 70s. You have to make an old story really relevant by speaking to it from today.
How does having kids influence someone’s artistic choices?
Well, my last novel Akin [about an elderly man’s connection with his 11 year-old nephew] was totally inspired by my son Finn. We talk about that kind of thing much less in regard to filmmaking because so many directors are men rather than women and it’s such a family-unfriendly industry. The hours are so gruelling. Lenny chose Room because he had small kids of his own. He brought his kindness, his observations and his interest in children to the project. We needed audio for the breastfeeding scene, a murmuring sound, and he got it from one of his kids.
A filmmaker shouldn’t have to be a nice guy, but it helps.