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Room author Emma Donoghue reveals biggest film vs. book differences

Shanee Edwards is a screenwriter who earned her master's degree at UCLA Film School. She recently won the Next MacGyver television writing competition to create a TV show about a female engineer. Her TV pilot, Ada and the Machine, is cur...

Why Emma Donoghue will never write a sequel to her novel Room, despite fans begging her to

The new film Room, based on Emma Donoghue’s novel, stars Brie Larson and Jacob Tremblay, both of whom are receiving early Oscar buzz. We sat down with Donoghue to find out if she thinks readers will be happy with her film adaptation.

Why Emma Donoghue will never write a sequel to her novel Room, despite fans begging her to
Image: A24 Films

The international best-selling novel Room tells the story of a 5-year-old boy and his mother struggling to escape a brutal captor who keeps them locked in an underground shed. Author Emma Donoghue explains what was lost — and what was gained — as she adapted her book for the screen.

In her first attempt at the screenplay, Donoghue admits adding scenes that weren't in the book simply because she thought she had to. "I had this giant pile of books on screenwriting and wanted to follow the rules. For instance, I read that your main character has to make the story happen. I was thinking, the problem is, Jack is sort of passive because he's a child. How do we make him push the story, maybe come up with some technique in the second half for getting Ma out of the mental hospital."

Her director, Lenny Abrahamson, told her not to listen to the screenwriting books and to stick to the novel. "Lenny wasn't nervous about any of the unusual aspects of the project. As the first meeting, he promised me he'd keep in the breastfeeding and kept to the basic structure of the book as well. It really helped that he was coming from a more European, art-house tradition. He said, 'We will get a mainstream audience for this film if we do it fearlessly and without compromise.'"

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Still, she had to cut scenes she thought worked well in the book. But she thinks making this film will satisfy fans of Room in a very surprising way.

“I’ve been harassed for five years by fans writing to say, 'We want more Ma! Can you tell the whole story again from Ma's point of view? Or can you give us a sequel in which Ma looks back on her youth, or can we have scenes between Ma and her therapist?' Because Ma is only shown indirectly through Jack, they crave more Ma. I will never write them a sequel, but this film answers them. This film lets them meet Ma directly, actually see, flickering on her face, those combinations of fear and fun when she's with Jack. The film is deeply satisfying on that level in a way the book can't be. One nice thing about cinema is that, while the point of view in fiction can be really pure, the child is reporting everything he sees and nothing else. Whereas in film, unless you're using some GoPro head-mounted camera, which would look gimmicky anyway, we always see the person and what they see. Film gives you that slightly doubled perspective."

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Why Emma Donoghue will never write a sequel to her novel Room, despite fans begging her to
Image: A24 Films

Donoghue admits being shocked when she saw the set of Room for the first time. "It was so nasty, so small and grungy with this hideous duvet cover which you don’t notice in the book because Jack, being a 5-year-old boy, doesn't report on the duvet cover."

While the film shows the throw rug with a giant bloodstain, the explanation for the stain is missing. This is a case where visual storytelling takes over and one can simply assume it's the spot where Ma gave birth.

Not wanting to be disloyal to her first love, fiction, Donoghue wants to share something written fiction does better than film. "Fiction has time to include all sorts of things. So in the book, there's a lot more social commentary. Jack gets to go into more situations in the second half, he meets his grandmother's book club, he goes to the mall. There's room for more characters." Additionally, the film cuts out Ma's brother, who Ma discovers now has a wife and child. About the book, Donoghue says, "There's more people, more situations, more extras. A film doesn't have time for all that. That's why so many great films have been made of short stories."

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Why Emma Donoghue will never write a sequel to her novel Room, despite fans begging her to
Image: A24 Films

Although the book includes hundreds of pages of Jack's thoughts that also had to be cut for the movie, Donoghue loved adding the visual of Jack to the film. "I find all the scenes with Jack really moving in the film. Like when he's looking out the window. You don't know exactly what he's thinking, but you can imagine. Or you can decide for yourself. Seeing these beautiful faces, 30 feet wide in the cinema, we project onto them. We make up our own minds about what they're thinking. It's wonderfully unspecified. The book is very psychological and specified. I knew every object that he'd ever touched. Those limits were really liberating in terms of writing. But in the film, he's a bit more mysterious at times. You don't know why he feels like playing with the LEGOs or not. In the book, they are people who exist through words, but in the film they have bodies."

Donoghue was also thrilled to see actor Jacob Tremblay's childlike body on screen and reveled in the way he moved his feet. "I just love all those shots of his feet. The kind of playfully awkward way a child moves, that's a big plus."

Happily summing up the challenging process of going from book to movie, Donoghue says, "For every loss there is a gain."

Room opens Oct. 16.

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